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inflammation of the brain. This inflammation can cause symptoms such as confusion, a
fever, a bad headache, and a stiff neck. Sometimes it leads to symptoms like
seizures and personality changes. It can also cause long-term problems, such as trouble with speech or memory.
Encephalitis is uncommon, but it can be deadly. If you think you have
symptoms of encephalitis, see a doctor right away.
Infection with a virus is the main cause of encephalitis. Different types of viruses can cause the illness. For example, West Nile virus can cause encephalitis when a person is bitten by an infected mosquito. Another type is the herpes simplex virus, which is the same virus that causes cold sores and genital herpes. A mother who is infected with the herpes virus can also pass the virus to her baby. If this happens and the baby gets encephalitis, it is very serious.
Encephalitis also can be caused by bacteria or by a parasite, such as the one that causes toxoplasmosis. In rare cases, encephalitis can be caused by a fungus.
But most people who get these types of infections don't get encephalitis.
Symptoms of encephalitis can include:
More serious symptoms include:
If you think that you or your child has encephalitis, call your doctor right away.
Early on, symptoms of encephalitis may be like
meningitis. This is a serious viral or
bacterial illness that causes swelling of the tissues
around the brain and spinal cord.
Your doctor will ask questions about
your past health and your symptoms. He or she will likely order tests to
confirm the diagnosis. These may include:
If you have encephalitis, you
will need to be treated in a hospital. Your treatment will depend on your
symptoms and the cause of your illness. You may be treated right away with an antiviral medicine, such as acyclovir. Antiviral medicine may make symptoms less severe, especially if you get the medicine right
away. If the
doctor thinks that your symptoms are caused by bacteria, rather than by a virus, he or she may treat you with antibiotics.
You will also get care to ease
your symptoms and allow your body to heal on its own. This is called supportive
care. You may take medicines to reduce pain and fever or to stop seizures. In
some cases, you may need a machine called a
ventilator to help you breathe.
After you are out of the hospital, it may take several weeks, months, or even longer to
fully recover from your symptoms. You can take care of yourself by eating well and getting plenty of rest. Follow your doctor's instructions on how much fluid to drink. If your doctor says it's okay, you can take nonprescription pain relievers for headaches. These include acetaminophen and
nonsteroidal anti-inflammatory drugs (NSAIDs) like
naproxen, ibuprofen, or aspirin. Do not give aspirin to anyone younger than 20 because of the risk of
Reye syndrome. Be safe with medicines. Read and follow all instructions on the label.
Some people have long-term problems. If you have muscle weakness or problems with coordination, you may need physical therapy. If you have speech or memory loss, you may need speech therapy or occupational therapy.
Your chance of
getting encephalitis is low. But there are things you can do to reduce your chances even
Learning about encephalitis:
Other Works Consulted
Antiviral drugs (2013).
Treatment Guidelines From The Medical Letter, 11(127): 19–30.
Gilden DH (2008). Acute viral central nervous system
diseases. In DC Dale, DD Federman, eds., ACP Medicine,
section 11, chap. 16. Hamilton, ON: BC Decker.
Current as of:
June 4, 2014
E. Gregory Thompson, MD - Internal Medicine & W. David Colby IV, MSc, MD, FRCPC - Infectious Disease
How this information was developed to help you make better health decisions.
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