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Reye Syndrome

(Reye's Syndrome)


Christopher P. Raab

, MD, Sidney Kimmel Medical College at Thomas Jefferson University

Reviewed/Revised Feb 2023
Topic Resources

Reye syndrome is a rare form of acute encephalopathy and fatty infiltration of the liver that occurs almost exclusively in children < 18 years old. It tends to occur after certain viral infections, especially varicella or influenza A or B, and particularly when salicylates are used. Diagnosis is clinical. Treatment is supportive.

The cause of Reye syndrome is unknown, but many cases seem to follow infection with influenza A or B Influenza Influenza is a viral respiratory infection causing fever, coryza, cough, headache, and malaise. Mortality is possible during seasonal epidemics, particularly among high-risk patients (eg, those... read more or varicella Chickenpox Chickenpox is an acute, systemic, usually childhood infection caused by the varicella-zoster virus (human herpesvirus type 3). It usually begins with mild constitutional symptoms (eg, fever... read more Chickenpox . Using salicylates (generally aspirin) during such illness increases the risk by as much as 20-fold (1 References Reye syndrome is a rare form of acute encephalopathy and fatty infiltration of the liver that occurs almost exclusively in children The cause of Reye syndrome is unknown, but many cases seem... read more ). This finding has led to a marked decrease in salicylate use in the United States in children and adolescents since the mid-1980s (except when specifically indicated, such as in Kawasaki disease Kawasaki Disease Kawasaki disease is a vasculitis, sometimes involving the coronary arteries, that tends to occur in infants and children between the ages of 1 year and 8 years. It is characterized by prolonged... read more Kawasaki Disease ) and a corresponding decrease in the incidence of Reye syndrome from several hundred annual cases to about 2 (2 References Reye syndrome is a rare form of acute encephalopathy and fatty infiltration of the liver that occurs almost exclusively in children The cause of Reye syndrome is unknown, but many cases seem... read more ).

The syndrome occurs almost exclusively in children < 18 years. In the United States, most cases occur in late fall and winter.

Overview of Reye Syndrome

The disease affects mitochondrial function, causing disturbance in fatty acid and carnitine metabolism. Pathophysiology and clinical manifestations are similar to a number of inherited metabolic disorders of fatty acid transport and mitochondrial oxidation (see Introduction to Inherited Disorders of Metabolism Introduction to Inherited Disorders of Metabolism Most inherited disorders of metabolism (also called inborn errors of metabolism) are caused by mutations in genes that code for enzymes; enzyme deficiency or inactivity leads to Accumulation... read more ).


Symptoms and Signs of Reye Syndrome

The disease varies greatly in severity but is characteristically biphasic.

Initial viral symptoms (upper respiratory infection or sometimes chickenpox) are followed in 5 to 7 days by pernicious nausea and vomiting and a sudden change in mental status. The changes in mental status may vary from a mild amnesia, weakness, vision and hearing changes, and lethargy to intermittent episodes of disorientation and agitation, which can progress rapidly to deepening stages of coma manifested by

  • Progressive unresponsiveness

  • Decorticate and decerebrate posturing

  • Seizures

  • Flaccidity

  • Fixed dilated pupils

  • Respiratory arrest

Focal neurologic findings usually are not present.

Hepatomegaly occurs in about 40% of cases, but jaundice is absent.

Complications of Reye syndrome

Complications include

Diagnosis of Reye Syndrome

  • History and physical examination consistent with encephalopathy and hepatic dysfunction

  • Blood tests for liver function, electrolytes, and ammonia level

  • Head CT or MRI, sometimes cerebral spinal fluid evaluation

  • Liver biopsy

Reye syndrome should be suspected in any child exhibiting the acute onset of an encephalopathy (without known heavy metal or toxin exposure) and pernicious vomiting associated with hepatic dysfunction.

Liver biopsy provides the definitive diagnosis, showing microvesicular, fatty changes, and is especially useful in sporadic cases and in children < 2 years.

The diagnosis may also be made when the typical clinical findings and history are associated with the following laboratory findings: increased liver transaminases (aspartate aminotransferase, alanine aminotransferase > 3 times normal), normal bilirubin, increased blood ammonia level, and prolonged prothrombin time.

Head CT or MRI is done as for any child with encephalopathy.

If head CT or MRI is normal, a lumbar puncture Lumbar Puncture (Spinal Tap) Lumbar puncture is used to do the following: Evaluate intracranial pressure and cerebrospinal fluid (CSF) composition (see table ) Therapeutically reduce intracranial pressure (eg, idiopathic... read more can be done. Cerebrospinal fluid (CSF) examination usually shows increased pressure, < 8 to 10 white blood cells/mcL, and normal protein levels; the CSF glutamine level may be elevated. Hypoglycemia and hypoglycorrhachia (a very low concentration of CSF glucose) occur in 15% of cases, especially in children < 4 years; they should be screened for metabolic disease.

Signs of metabolic derangement include elevated serum amino acid levels, acid-base disturbances (usually with hyperventilation, mixed respiratory alkalosis–metabolic acidosis), osmolar changes, hypernatremia, hypokalemia, and hypophosphatemia.

Differential diagnosis

The differential diagnosis of coma and liver dysfunction includes

Illnesses such as idiopathic steatosis of pregnancy and tetracycline liver toxicity may show similar light microscopic findings.

Diagnosis reference

  • 1. Kliegman R, St. Geme J: Nelson Textbook of Pediatrics, ed. 21. Philadelphia, Elsevier, 2020.

Treatment of Reye Syndrome

  • Support measures, including measures to lower increased intracranial pressure

  • Usually treatment of coagulopathy

Treatment of Reye syndrome is supportive, with particular attention paid to control of increased intracranial pressure and blood glucose because glycogen depletion is common.

Treatment of elevated increased intracranial pressure includes intubation, hyperventilation, fluid restriction of 1500 mL/m2/day, elevating the head of the bed, osmotic diuretics, direct increased intracranial pressure monitoring, and decompressing craniotomy.

Infusion of 10 or 15% dextrose is common to maintain euglycemia.

Coagulopathy may require fresh frozen plasma or vitamin K.

Other treatments (eg, exchange transfusion, hemodialysis, barbiturate-induced deep coma) have not been proved effective but are sometimes used.

Prognosis for Reye Syndrome

Outcome is related to the duration of cerebral dysfunction, severity and rate of progression of coma, severity of increased intracranial pressure, and degree of blood ammonia elevation. Progression from stage I to higher stages is likely when the initial blood ammonia level is > 100 mcg/dL (> 60 mcmol/L) and the prothrombin time is 3 seconds longer than that of the control.

In fatal cases, the mean time from hospitalization to death is 4 days. Fatality rates average 21% but range from < 2% among patients in stage I to > 80% among patients in stage IV or V.

Prognosis for survivors usually is good, and recurrences are rare. However, the incidence of neurologic sequelae (eg, intellectual disability, seizure disorders, cranial nerve palsies, motor dysfunction) is as high as 30% among survivors who developed seizures or decerebrate posturing during illness.

Key Points

  • Reye syndrome is a rare form of acute encephalopathy and hepatic dysfunction that occurs almost exclusively in children < 18 years old, typically occurring after viral infection, especially varicella or influenza A or B (particularly with salicylate use).

  • Diagnosis is by exclusion of similarly manifesting infectious, toxic, and metabolic disorders; liver biopsy may help confirm it.

  • Treatment is supportive, particularly with measures to lower increased intracranial pressure.

Drugs Mentioned In This Article

Drug Name Select Trade
Aluvea , BP-50% Urea , BP-K50, Carmol, CEM-Urea, Cerovel, DermacinRx Urea, Epimide-50, Gord Urea, Gordons Urea, Hydro 35 , Hydro 40, Kerafoam, Kerafoam 42, Keralac, Keralac Nailstik, Keratol, Keratol Plus, Kerol, Kerol AD, Kerol ZX, Latrix, Mectalyte, Nutraplus, RE Urea 40, RE Urea 50 , Rea Lo, Remeven, RE-U40, RYNODERM , U40, U-Kera, Ultra Mide 25, Ultralytic-2, Umecta, Umecta Nail Film, URALISS, Uramaxin , Uramaxin GT, Urea, Ureacin-10, Ureacin-20, Urealac , Ureaphil, Uredeb, URE-K , Uremez-40, Ure-Na, Uresol, Utopic, Vanamide, Xurea, X-VIATE
Emtet-500, Panmycin, Sumycin
Advocate Glucose SOS, BD Glucose, Dex4 Glucose, Glutol , Glutose 15 , Glutose 45 , Glutose 5
NOTE: This is the Professional Version. CONSUMERS: View Consumer Version
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