Reye’s syndrome is an incredibly rare and serious illness that affects the brain, liver and other organs in the body. It most often occurs in children while they are recovering from common childhood viral infections such as chickenpox, influenza, mumps or the measles. (1, 2)
While it is most common in children between the ages of 4 and 12 years old, it can occur at any time. Reye’s syndrome is linked to the use of aspirin and aspirin-like products during a viral disease. (3)
Reye’s syndrome symptoms can begin within three to five days of the onset of the viral illness or several days afterward. If you suspect Reye’s because of a viral illness and the use of aspirin or an aspirin-like product, seek emergency medical attention immediately. Time is of the essence. (4)
This illness is often fatal; death occurs in 30 percent to 40 percent of all cases. (5) And while there is no cure, the earlier it is diagnosed and treated, the better the chance the patient will experience a full recovery. Some people will recover completely from Reye’s syndrome while others may sustain some degree of brain damage.
The National Reye’s syndrome Foundation warns that aspirin and aspirin-like compounds appear in a wide array of over-the-counter (OTC) medications, prescription medications and topical products, including sunscreens, acne treatments, beauty products and certain medications. (6)
Nothing is more difficult for a parent than seeing their child in pain. Fortunately, there are safe, natural alternatives to aspirin that can help relieve pain and lower a high temperature. Just remember, never give a child aspirin or willow bark unless directly instructed to do so by your doctor.
What Is Reye’s syndrome?
Reye’s syndrome is a serious, sometimes fatal, disease that primarily affects children, but can strike anyone of any age. Reye’s syndrome is considered a two-phase illness as it typically occurs in conjunction with a viral infection. And while researchers have not identified a definitive cause, research does show that there is a direct link between Reye’s syndrome and the use of aspirin and other salicylate-containing medications, OTC drugs and topical products when used while fighting a viral illness like chicken pox. (7)
This illness affects all of the organs in the body, but it is most destructive to the liver and the brain. It often causes an acute increase in pressure within the brain and significant accumulations of fat in the liver and other organs. (8)
As swelling occurs in the brain, it can lead to convulsions, seizures or a loss of consciousness. Seek emergency medical attention immediately if a child or adult experiences repeated vomiting, lethargy, sudden behavior changes or seizures while recovering from the flu, chicken pox or another viral illness. (9)
Symptoms can begin during recovery from the primary illness, but they can also develop within three to five days after onset of the primary illness. Knowing the signs and symptoms of Reye’s syndrome — as well as the wide range of medications and products that contain aspirin and aspirin-like compounds — is essential.
Immediate diagnosis and treatment are necessary. This is a deadly disease that strikes quickly and generally without much warning.
Reye’s syndrome is not contagious, but many of the viral illnesses it is associated with are.
Reye’s syndrome Signs & Symptoms
The following symptoms can appear while getting over a viral illness like the flu or chicken pox, or in the three to five day period after the onset of the illness. Early diagnosis is crucial to survival.
During and following a viral illness all individuals, regardless of age, should be watched for two to three weeks for any of these symptoms: (10)
- Relentless or continuous vomiting
- Excessive sleepiness or drowsiness
- Change in personality
- Slurred speech
- Sensitivity to touch
- Loss of consciousness
NOTE: Symptoms in infants do not follow a typical pattern and vomiting does not always occur. (8) The most common symptoms in infants are:
- Rapid breathing
Causes & Risk Factors
Research shows a direct link between Reye’s syndrome, a viral illness, and the use of an aspirin-containing product. According to the National Reye’s syndrome Foundation, the aspirin and aspirin-like compounds appear in OTC medications and prescription medications, but they also can appear in topical products, including beauty products. (6)
Read product ingredient lists carefully and avoid them if any of the following ingredients appear during or after a viral infection or while pregnant or breast-feeding:
- Acetyl salicylic acid
- Acetylsalicylate acid
- Aluminum acetyl salicylate
- Ammonium salicylate
- Amyl salicylate
- Benzyl salicylate
- Butyloctyl salicylate
- Calcium acetyl salicylate
- Choline salicylate
- Ethyl salicylate
- Lithium salicylate
- Methyl salicylate
- Methylene disalicylic acid
- Octyl salicylate
- Phenyl salicylate
- Procaine salicylate
- Sal ethyl carbonate
- Salicylsalicylic acid
- Salicylsalicylic acid
- Santalyl salicylate
- Sodium salicylate
- Strontium salicylate
- Sulfosalicylic acid
- Tridecyl salicylate
- Trolamine salicylate
These compounds are found in many OTC medications including medications for pain, headache, heartburn and other digestive problems. Certain anti-nausea medications are also associated with Reye’s syndrome.
Some topical products contain aspirin-like compounds too. Read ingredient lists carefully for any of the following products as although they aren’t ingested, they can be absorbed through the skin: (11)
- Acne cleansers & creams
- Arthritis pain rubs
- Facial astringents
- Dandruff shampoos
- Exfoliating moisturizers
- Facial scrubs
- Facial masks
- Muscle pain relief creams
- Sun block
- Wart removers
- Wintergreen-scented oils
While the exact cause of Reye’s syndrome is unknown, several factors may play a role. It can be triggered by using aspirin or aspirin-like substances during a viral illness or infection.
In addition, some research indicates children and teens with an underlying fatty acid oxidation disorder may be at an increased risk. This condition is part of a group of inherited metabolic disorders where the body is unable to break down fatty acids because an enzyme is missing or not working properly. Also of note — in addition to aspirin and metabolic disorders — exposure to certain toxins, insecticides, herbicides and paint thinner may contribute to Reye’s syndrome. (12)
As mentioned, there is no cure for Reye’s syndrome. Successful treatment and management requires an early diagnosis. Unfortunately, there is not yet a single laboratory test that can determine Reye’s syndrome.
Diagnosis typically begins with blood and urine tests, as well as testing for fatty acid oxidation disorders. More invasive tests may be required. CT or MRI scans, a liver biopsy, a spinal tap or a skin biopsy may be necessary.
As the use of aspirin has been discouraged for quite some time in children, Reye’s syndrome is rare. Parents must be vigilant and urge testing if there is the slightest possibility that aspirin or aspirin-like products were used during a viral illness. There is a 90 percent chance of recovery when this illness is treated in its earliest stages, according to the National Reye’s syndrome Foundation. (10)
First steps in treatment are generally aimed at reducing brain swelling to protect the brain against irreversible damage. In addition, reversing metabolic damage and preventing further complications in the lungs and other organs are top priorities.
As an inpatient, vital statistics and organ health will be monitored closely as cardiac arrest is possible. IV fluids with electrolytes and glucose, as well as diuretics, vitamin K, plasma and platelets may be prescribed. In the event breathing is compromised, a ventilator may be required. (13)
Avoid any and all products that contain aspirin and aspirin-like compounds listed above. Drugs from the salicylate family should never be used when a viral illness like the flu, chicken pox or others are present. (14)
6 Natural Alternatives to Aspirin
1. Eat Real Food.
Inflammation is one of the primary causes of pain in both adults and children. (15) To combat pain, avoid all processed and packaged foods, gluten, caffeine, and added sugar and alcohol as they are suspected to cause an inflammatory response. Instead, focus on eating an anti-inflammatory diet rich with foods such as wild-caught salmon, grass-fed beef, blueberries, celery, pineapple, walnuts and leafy greens.
Another great way to reduce pain is to cook with spices known for their anti-inflammatory properties, like cayenne, turmeric and cinnamon. My kid-friendly healthy CrockPot cinnamon applesauce recipe is perfect for soothing an upset stomach while providing key nutrients.
2. Take a Warm Bath.
Run a warm bath and mix in 2 cups of Epsom salt and 8 to 10 drops of lavender oil and soak for 30 to 40 minutes. Epsom salt is known for relieving pain, muscle aches and soreness, while lavender oil will help to reduce stress and promote a restful sleep. (16, 17)
Known for its antioxidant and anti-inflammatory properties, adding ginger root to your diet may help to relieve pain. In a small study published in the International Journal of Preventative Medicine, researchers found that adults consuming two grams of ginger reduced muscle pain after intense physical exercise. (18)
While two grams is too much for a child, adding fresh ginger in the form of a tea or in my recipe for tom kha gai made with bone broth and ginger may help to relieve pain and discomfort, particularly when used in conjunction with other remedies on this list. As ginger can cause digestive upset and heartburn in high doses, introduce it slowly if it is not already part of your regular diet.
Massage therapy has long been hailed for its physical and emotional healing powers. In fact, it is known to relieve or reduce pain associated with arthritis, fibromyalgia, bursitis and joint pain while improving depression and anxiety and boosting immunity. (19, 20, 21)
Massage increases dopamine and decreases cortisol, helping to regulate anxiety and stress, which is common when we feel ill or are in pain. For young children and infants, use soft long strokes to apply a blend of a couple of drops of peppermint oil with a carrier oil. Studies show this essential oil to be a natural painkiller and muscle relaxant. (22)
And, according to Nationwide Children’s — one of the largest pediatric health care and research centers in the United States — massage helps to decrease muscle tension and improve quality of sleep. And sleep is one of the most restorative natural treatments you can employ for pain and discomfort. (23)
Research shows that turmeric can be effective at relieving pain and inflammation. In fact, a study published in the Journal of Medicinal Food found 1,000 milligrams of curcumin per day to be effective at relieving arthritis pain. (24)
Again, that dosage is too much for young children, but adding turmeric to their diet may be a safe and effective way of managing pain. Try my child-friendly recipe for carrot ginger soup and grate some fresh turmeric into the soup. Turmeric tea is another way to introduce this powerful root into a child’s diet. Note: For children under the age of 5, replace the honey called for in the recipe with coconut sugar or natural maple syrup.
6. Drink Plenty of Fluids.
To reduce a fever drink more water. If an illness is prolonged, dehydration is a risk. Drinking coconut water is a great way to protect against dehydration as it is packed with electrolytes. And, in addition to helping with hydration levels, bone broth — which is rich with collagen — has been shown to support healthy inflammation levels and a healthy immune system. (25, 26)
Reye’s syndrome is often misdiagnosed as encephalitis, meningitis, diabetes, drug overdose, poisoning, sudden infant death syndrome or a psychiatric illness, according to the National Institute of Neurological Disorders and Stroke. (5)
The longer it takes to get a definitive diagnosis and to receive proper treatment, the chances for successful recovery and survival are severely reduced. Unless Reye’s syndrome is diagnosed and treated quickly and successfully, death is common within a few days.
In infants, Reye’s syndrome is frequently misdiagnosed as the symptoms are different than in children and adults. Be on the lookout for signs including: (27)
- Rapid onset of lethargy
- Respiratory distress
Another concern for infants is the use of aspirin during pregnancy and breast-feeding. According to the World Health Organization (WHO), aspirin is transferred through breast milk. The Food and Drug Administration (FDA) also warns against using aspirin during the last three months of pregnancy. (28)
With all of the OTC and prescription medications, as well as topical compounds, that contain aspirin or aspirin-like compounds, it is vital that you read all labels for any ingredients that may present a problem while you are pregnant or nursing. (29)
Reye’s Syndrome Key Points
- Reye’s syndrome occurs as a result of taking aspirin and aspirin-like compounds while the body fights a viral infection.
- This is a serious condition that can occur very rapidly, and it can result in death.
- Early diagnosis and treatment is a must; up to 90 percent of patients treated in the earliest stages recover.
- Aspirin is not the only ingredient to avoid. There are a number of aspirin-like compounds that can be found in medications and beauty products that contain worrisome ingredients.
- Everyone, regardless of age, should be monitored for two to three weeks after a viral illness for the common symptoms of Reye’s syndrome.
6 Natural Alternatives to Aspirin
- Eat real food, avoiding processed foods, gluten, added sugar and any known allergen. Instead, choose an anti-inflammatory diet rich with wild-caught salmon, bone broth, leafy greens and fresh fruits.
- Take a warm bath with Epsom salt and lavender oil to reduce muscle aches, pains and to spur relaxation and better sleep.
- Add ginger to your diet to help reduce pain and inflammation.
- Have or give a massage with peppermint oil, which is known for its analgesic properties.
- Incorporate turmeric into your diet to help relieve inflammation and pain. Grate fresh turmeric into soups or make a tea for young children to sip on throughout the day.
- Drink plenty of fluids including water, coconut water and bone broth.