Reye's syndrome is a very rare condition that can affect children or young adults after they've had an illness like flu or chickenpox. It can cause serious brain problems if it's not treated quickly.
Check if it's Reye's syndrome
Symptoms of Reye's syndrome often start 1 to 3 weeks after a child recovers from a virus like flu or chickenpox.
The child may:
- keep being sick (vomiting)
- be drowsy and lack energy
- feel confused
- have changes in their behaviour, such as being irritable or aggressive
- breathe quickly and have a fast heart rate
- have fits (seizures)
- lose consciousness
Reye's syndrome most commonly affects children between 5 and 14 years of age.
Younger and older children can also sometimes get it, but it's very rare in babies under the age of 1 and in those over the age of 18.
Immediate action required: Call 999 or go to A&E if your child:
- has a fit or seizure
- is finding it difficult to breathe
- is confused
- is limp, floppy or not responding like they normally do (their head may fall to the side, backwards or forwards, or they may find it difficult to lift their head or focus on your face)
- loses consciousness
Urgent advice: Ask for an urgent GP appointment or get help from NHS 111 if:
- your child keeps being sick (vomiting)
- your child is drowsy or lacks energy
- your child is not their normal self – for example, they're irritable or aggressive
Check symptoms on 111 online (for children aged 5 or over) or call 111 (for children under 5).
Tell the GP or person you speak to if your child has recently had an infection like flu or chickenpox and if they've taken aspirin.
What happens at your appointment
If there's a chance your child might have Reye's syndrome, they'll be referred to a specialist for some tests.
Tests may include:
- blood and urine tests
- a CT scan and an electroencephalogram (EEG)
- a lumbar puncture – where a thin needle is inserted into their lower back to remove a small amount of spinal fluid for testing
- a liver biopsy – where a small sample of cells from the liver is taken for testing
Treatments for Reye's syndrome
If your child has Reye's syndrome, they'll need to go into hospital straight away for treatment.
Treatments for Reye's syndrome may include:
- help with breathing using an oxygen machine
- fluids given directly into a vein to help prevent dehydration
- medicines to help treat and manage symptoms
Most children with Reye's syndrome make a full recovery if it's treated quickly. But some children can have long-term brain problems.
Causes of Reye's syndrome
The exact cause of Reye's syndrome is unknown.
It's been linked to the use of a type of medicine known as salicylates, particularly aspirin, in young people and children under 16.
Sometimes a child with a rare genetic condition, such as medium-chain acyl-CoA dehydrogenase deficiency (MCADD), can get Reye's syndrome. This has nothing to do with the use of aspirin.
Preventing Reye's syndrome
There are things you can do to reduce your child's chance of getting Reye's syndrome.
think about getting your child vaccinated against flu and other common viruses
do not give aspirin to children under the age of 16, unless their doctor prescribes it
do not give children under 16 any medicines that contain salicylic acid or salicylate, which includes some mouth ulcer gels – ask a pharmacist for advice about alternatives suitable for children
Page last reviewed: 14 September 2023
Next review due: 14 September 2026