The risk of encephalitis (brain inflammation) from viral infections is higher in people with weak immune systems. Encephalitis is the inflammation of brain tissue. Although it is rare, encephalitis affects one in 200,000 Americans. When encephalitis strikes, symptoms such as personality changes, seizures, and weakness may occur.
Individuals with weakened immune systems, children and seniors for example, are more susceptible to encephalitis as it is commonly caused by a viral infection. In this case it can also be referred to as viral encephalitis.
Encephalitis patients usually recover from the condition, but recovery depends on the type of virus as well as the treatment used.
Causes and symptoms of encephalitis
Encephalitis is commonly caused by a virus or an infection, but in some cases it is idiopathic (no known cause is found). Common viruses that can cause encephalitis include:
- Herpes simplex: This virus causes most cases of cold sores and genital herpes.
- Varicella zoster virus: This virus can cause chicken pox and shingles.
Symptoms of encephalitis may include:
- High temperature
- Nausea and vomiting
- Joint pain
- Changes in mental state
- Changes in personality or behavior
- Loss of consciousness
- Flu-like symptoms
- Sensitivity to bright light
- Inability to speak
- Inability to control movement
- Stiff neck
- Loss of sensation in certain body parts
- Involuntary eye movements
Complications of encephalitis
Complications related to encephalitis depend on a variety of factors, including a patient’s age, the cause of infection, the severity of the initial illness, and time between the disease onset and treatment.
Complications of encephalitis include:
- Persistent fatigue
- Weakness and lack of muscle coordination
- Personality changes
- Memory problems
- Hearing or vision defects
- Speech impairments
Diagnosis and treatment of encephalitis
Recognizing the symptoms of encephalitis is the first step toward diagnosing and treating it. A brain scan and a neurological examination may also be conducted to help diagnose encephalitis. Additional testing may involve a lumbar puncture; a sample of cerebrospinal fluid is taken that can reveal abnormally high levels of protein and white blood cells. Lastly, blood work and an electroencephalograph can be used.
Treatment of encephalitis involves treating the infection or virus that caused encephalitis. A variety of medications—like corticosteroids and anticonvulsants—may also be used to treat the infection and the symptoms (e.g. seizures). Your doctor will determine which mode of treatment is best for you based on your symptoms.
Prevention of encephalitis
Prevention of encephalitis involves general illness prevention. For example, it is a good idea to practice good hygiene, avoid sharing utensils, and to get vaccinated. It’s also vital that you protect yourself from mosquitoes and ticks as they can carry illnesses that can cause encephalitis in humans.
Tips to prevent mosquito and tick bites include:
- Wear long sleeve shirts or long pants
- Wear insect repellant
- Use EPA-recommended insecticide
- Avoid venturing into heavily wooded areas
- Keep mosquitoes out of the home by sealing foundation cracks
Following these precautions is a great way to prevent viral encephalitis and the complications that come with it.