Reye’s syndrome is an infrequent but severe illness that can cause brain swelling, liver damage, and disorientation. It mainly occurs in children but can develop at any age. While the disease affects every organ in the body, it primarily causes harm to the brain and liver. As brain swelling increases, seizures and loss of consciousness may occur.

Also, a child’s blood sugar may decline rapidly while acidity in the blood increases. As the liver struggles to filter the excess toxins, it may begin to swell and accumulate fatty deposits.

Reye’s syndrome usually occurs in children who have previously contracted a viral infection, such as the flu or chickenpox. This potentially life-threatening disorder typically occurs during recovery from a viral illness. However, it may also develop within three to five days of the onset of the virus.

Often, doctors misdiagnose Reye’s syndrome as illnesses like encephalitis, meningitis, sudden infant death syndrome, or poisoning. Because the symptoms mimic many other disorders, it makes it challenging to diagnose Reye’s.

However, Reye’s syndrome typically presents with similar symptoms in most people who contract the disorder. We’ll review some of Reye’s most common signs below.

7 Commonly Overlooked Signs of Reye’s Syndrome

The National Institute of Neurological Disorders and Stroke lists typical symptoms of Reye’s syndrome:

Reye's syndrome

1.     Vomiting

Persistent and recurring vomiting occurs typically in the first stage of Reye’s syndrome. If you notice your child throwing up frequently, it could signal Reye’s, especially if they recently had the flu. This symptom affects primarily young children and adults rather than infants. In any case, a medical professional should always check out vomiting following a viral infection.

2.     Lethargy and Drowsiness

Many children feel more fatigued and drained after coming down with Reye’s. Since the body must work harder to pump out toxins and deliver blood to the brain, it requires more energy. Therefore, it often leads to increased lethargy, especially in younger children. If you notice your child acting more sluggish than expected, you may want to have them checked for Reye’s.

3.     Difficulty Breathing

Hyperventilation usually occurs in the second stage of the disorder. The increased pressure on the brain due to swelling affects how the brain functions. This swelling makes it more difficult for neurons to communicate with the brain, leading to hyperventilation. The brain starts to lose oxygen and blood supply, which can cause respiratory distress.

This is one of the more severe symptoms of Reye’s and requires immediate medical attention.

4.     Confusion and Delirium

The combination of shallow breathing and swelling in the brain can make children feel confused or delirious. The syndrome may cause a child to go into a coma or lose consciousness. In some cases, permanent brain damage may occur if the disorder isn’t detected early enough. However, many children recover generally within a few days following treatment.

5.     Muscle Spasms

This occurs typically in the beginning stages of the illness. Muscle spasms and twitching often indicate disruptions in the brain’s neural pathways caused by swelling or pressure.  Doctors may also notice dilated pupils and a lack of response to irritating or unpleasant stimuli. All these symptoms result from changes in the brain occurring due to cerebral edema (swelling).

While muscle spasms don’t necessarily point to Reye’s, it’s worth ruling out with a visit to the doctor.

6.     Seizures or Convulsions

Seizures are typically a late-stage symptom associated with Reye’s. As such, they require immediate medical attention to reduce further damage. Uncontrolled electrical disturbances in the brain may occur if neurological function becomes severely impaired. However, with early treatment, it’s unlikely that the disorder will progress to this stage.

7.     Irritability and Aggressive Behavior

Finally, many overlook irritability and combative behavior when considering Reye’s syndrome. A child who doesn’t know what’s happening in their brain will likely become aggressive out of fear or confusion. So, if your child normally seems calm and content, this symptom could cause concern. It may signal an underlying problem that should never be ignored, especially if they’re recovering from a viral infection.

What Causes Reye’s Syndrome?

Doctors still haven’t found the exact cause of Reye’s syndrome. However, research shows that damage to cellular mitochondria may play a role in its development. Since mitochondria are the “powerhouse of the cell,” underactive or malfunctioning mitochondria may affect liver function. However, the cause of mitochondrial dysfunction isn’t known.

Also, studies reveal that children with fatty acid oxidation disorder or other metabolic disorders are at a higher risk. Doctors may even misdiagnose Reye’s in some cases because of its similarity to certain metabolic diseases.

Finally, experts believe that aspirin (salicylate) may trigger or exacerbate Reye’s symptoms. However, scientists still don’t know why aspirin causes Reye’s to develop in some cases. It’s believed that aspirin-containing medications may have a detrimental effect on children with pre-existing metabolic disorders. Because of the possible association between Reye’s and salicylate, experts advise that anyone under eighteen avoid aspirin following viral infections.

Treatment for Reye’s Syndrome

If doctors determine that your child does have Reye’s, they will first attempt to reduce swelling in the brain. Next, they will focus on reversing metabolic and liver damage. Treatments may include intubation or ventilation to increase breathing rate. Also, ammonia-lowering medications and plasma transfusions may be recommended. Finally, they may administer blood sugar medication to maintain balanced glucose levels.

Reye's Syndrome

Final Thoughts on Signs of Reye’s Syndrome

Reye’s syndrome is a rare but life-threatening disorder that annually impacts around two people in the United States. Increased awareness of the illness and reduced aspirin use among young people have likely contributed to its decline. However, it’s still important to watch out for signs of the disorder, as it can cause permanent brain damage or even death.

Typically, children will present with vomiting, hyperventilation, and extreme lethargy in the beginning stages. They may also experience muscle spasms and personality changes due to brain swelling. In later stages, seizures, convulsions, and loss of consciousness may occur.

See your healthcare provider immediately if your child recently had a viral infection and displays these symptoms. They can diagnose and treat the condition before it causes potentially irreversible damage.