Why Children and Aspirin Don’t Mix

Why Children and Aspirin Don't Mix

If you’ve been told not to give your kids aspirin because it’s linked to Reye’s syndrome, you may wonder exactly what that means. Although not much is known about the disease, one thing is certain: It can be deadly.

You probably know not to give your kids aspirin…and that the reason has something to do with Reye’s (pronounced “rye’s”) syndrome (RS). Other than that, you may have no clue what RS is or what aspirin has to do with it.

Little is known about RS, including its cause. RS is rare and isn’t contagious. It’s usually seen when a child is getting over a viral illness. Although it can occur at any time, it’s seen mostly in January, February and March – when people are battling the flu, colds and chickenpox.

RS usually strikes children between the ages of 4 and 16 – but rarely adults. Babies, too, can get RS.

Symptoms of RS

The first sign of RS is vomiting, which starts about three to seven days after a child has a virus like the chickenpox or flu. The vomiting usually gets worse during the next eight to 12 hours. The child may have little energy and be very sleepy.

In the second stage, children may be aggressive, cranky and confused, and may not know where they are. They may have seizures or even go into a coma. There is usually no fever. Infants may have different symptoms, like diarrhea instead of vomiting.

If RS is caught before the second stage, a child has a very good chance of getting well. If a child reaches the second stage, though, coma and death can occur.

Why it’s so severe

In RS, fat builds up in the liver (and other organs) and pressure builds in the brain. Because RS may be mistaken for other diseases, valuable treatment time can be lost.

The aspirin link

A connection has been shown between aspirin and RS. The U.S. Surgeon General says parents should not give aspirin or products containing aspirin to children under the age of 19, unless approved by a doctor.

Although someone can get RS without taking aspirin, keeping aspirin away from children is the best way to avoid it.

Aspirin-containing products

Aspirin may be listed on product labels as “acetylsalicylate” or “acetylsalicylic salicylic,” among other similar names. Always read labels carefully or check with your pharmacist before buying medication for your children.

Aspirin is found in many over-the-counter medicines. Read labels carefully before giving medicine to your child. Aspirin is also called:

  • Acetyl salicylate
  • Acetylsalicylic acid
  • Salicylic acid
  • Salicylate or subsalicylate

These aspirin products are found in Pepto-Bismol, Kaopectate, Pamprin and Alka Seltzer, for instance.

Aspirin can be found in products that are rubbed on the skin, which can also be dangerous to children. A few of them are:

  • Acne products
  • Arthritis pain rubs
  • Dandruff shampoos
  • Wart removers
  • Sport-strength sun block
  • Facial scrubs
  • Exfoliating creams
  • Astringents
  • Muscle pain relief creams
  • Facial scrubs and masks


In hopes of preventing brain damage, the care team gives a child with RS medication to reduce brain swelling. They also make sure the child’s fluids and electrolytes stay balanced, and work to prevent lung or heart complications.

Depending on how severe the swelling becomes, a child can become brain damaged or die. A child whose RS is caught early has a much better chance of getting well than one who slips into a coma. That’s why parents need to act quickly if they notice the earliest symptoms of RS.

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