Encephalitis is sudden inflammation (swelling) in the brain. It is usually caused by viruses, bacteria, or other pathogens. As the brain swells, it can get damaged when it gets crushed against the skull. Encephalitis can cause serious symptoms, like seizures and strokes, and can be fatal. In 2013, encephalitis killed about 77,000 people in the world.
Signs and symptoms[change | change source]
Usually, adults with encephalitis have a fever that starts suddenly, a headache, confusion, and sometimes seizures. Younger children or infants may be irritable (easily upset), not want to eat, and have a fever. Usually, patients are either very tired or confused.
Causes[change | change source]
Viruses[change | change source]
Viral encephalitis can happen when a virus infects the brain. The most common causes are the rabies virus, Human Papillomavirus (HPV), the polio virus, and the measles virus. Viral encephalitis can also be caused by a latent virus - a virus that hides from the body's immune system the brain's nerve cells. Two examples of viruses that cause latent infection are the varicella-zoster viruses, which can hide in the brain after causing chicken pox, and the herpes simplex virus.
Bacteria[change | change source]
Encephalitis can happen when a person gets a bacterial infection, like bacterial meningitis. It can also be a complication of an infectious disease that a person already has, like syphilis. This is called "secondary encephalitis."
Examples of other bacteria which can cause encephalitis are Staphylococcus aureus, which causes toxic shock syndrome; Bordetella pertussis, which causes pertussis (whooping cough); and types of Borellia bacteria, which cause Lyme disease.
Parasites[change | change source]
Some parasites can infect the brain, especially in people who have weak immune systems. Examples include Toxoplasma gondii, which causes toxoplasmosis; two parasites from the species Trypanosoma brucei, which cause African trypanosomiasis (African sleeping sickness); and Plasmodium parasites, which cause malaria.
Autoimmune diseases[change | change source]
Autoimmune diseases can cause encephalitis if the body's immune system attacks the brain, the spinal cord, and their nerves. Two examples are autoimmune encephalitis and acute disseminated encephalitis. 
Diagnosis[change | change source]
- An MRI (brain scan) can show brain swelling, and also show whether there are other brain problems causing a patient's symptoms
- An EEG (a picture of the brain's electrical activity) will show signals that are not normal
- A lumbar puncture (spinal tap) will show whether there is an infection in the cerebrospinal fluid (which bathes the brain and spinal cord)
- Blood tests or urine tests may show whether a person has encephalitis, or if they have another illness instead
Treatment[change | change source]
Some treatments for encephalitis depend on the cause:
- Viral encephalitis is treated with anti-viral medications
- Bacterial encephalitis is treated with antibiotic medications
- Steroid medications are used to decrease swelling in the brain
- Anticonvulsant medications can stop seizures
- Sedative medications can help with restlessness and irritability
- Acetaminophen can decrease fever and headache
- Physical therapy and speech therapy can help if the person has trouble moving or speaking after their infection is gone
Prevention[change | change source]
Vaccines have made encephalitis from some diseases much less common. These diseases include measles, mumps, rubella (German measles), polio, varicella (chicken pox), and pertussis (whooping cough). There are also vaccines for rabies, bacterial meningitis, Japanese encephalitis, Human Papillomavirus (HPV), and some other diseases that can cause encephalitis.
People can protect themselves from diseases that are spread by insects, like Lyme disease and malaria, by avoiding insect bites. For example, they can use bug spray; wear long sleeves and long pants; sleep under a mosquito net; and make sure they have good window and door screens.
References[change | change source]
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- Howes, David S. (October 12, 2015). "Encephalitis: Practice Essentials, Background, Pathophysiology". Medscape. WebMD LLC. Retrieved February 3, 2016.
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