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- The ARC - California Edition -

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The Reye's Syndrome Story


Children and teenagers should not use aspirin for chicken pox or flu symptoms before a doctor is consulted about Reye’s syndrome, a rare but serious illness reported to be associated with aspirin.

They call it a rare disease. Reye’s syndrome is a disease which is believed to be caused by the ingestion of medicines (such as aspirin) . The syndrome is a neurological disorder that may result in brain damage and even death. And it is clearly a preventable disease. 

The medical warning in the box above is currently required to be printed on the containers for aspirin and as the warning infers, Reye’s syndrome disease usually occurs just as a child or teen-ager appears to be recovering from flu, chicken pox, or other viral infections. 

To prevent Reye’s syndrome, people must be aware of the need to avoid aspirin. Because doctors are not contacted every time a child gets sick, parents themselves need to be aware of the association between aspirin and Reye’s syndrome. 

The message also needs to reach teenagers who may take medications without talking to either their parents or a doctor.

Reports of the syndrome appeared as early as 1929, but it was not until the year 1963 that Reye’s syndrome was formally defined for the first time. 

During that year, an Australian pathologist named Ralph Douglas Reye, M.D. wrote a paper which described a group of children with common abnormalities, including severe tiredness, belligerence, and excessive vomiting. 

By the year 1980, a number of other researchers had established that there is a strong association between the ingestion of aspirin during and after a viral illness. 

These viruses linked to Reye’s syndrome include Chicken pox, Influenza, Mumps, Rubella, Rubeola, Polio, Epstein-Barr, Herpes simplex, Cytomegalovirus, Coxsackie, and Anenovirus.

Most physicians during the 1960s were completely unfamiliar with the syndrome at the time, and they needed to know what constituted a positive diagnosis. 

It was less than 20 years ago that another part of the research community finally linked the use of aspirin (and other similar drugs known as salicylates) as being the cause of these symptoms. 

As soon as this was formally recognized, accepted, and communicated to other professionals (and to the general public), the numbers of Reye’s Syndrome cases started decreasing. From 1979 to 1985, purchases of children’s aspirin declined from 560 million tablets to 173 million. The number of Reye’s Syndrome cases decreased from a high of nearly 700 in 1980, to less than 100 cases reported by 1985.

It was a year later that the CDC recommended that aspirin labels include a warning relating cause and effect. Not until the warning became mandatory did the number of Reye’s cases plummet. 


Condition: Reye’s syndrome; a disorder that affects all organs of the body, but 
most lethally affects the liver and brain.

Link to Mental Retardation: Children who survive are often left with neurological 
abnormalities and mental retardation.

Primarily Affects: Children and teenagers


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