What is encephalitis and what are its causes
Encephalitis is an inflammation of the brain which results in swelling of the brain. It is a serious condition and requires urgent treatment in hospital. Approximately 6,000 people in the UK are affected per year.
- Viral infection, including the cold sore virus (herpes simplex) or chicken pox virus (varicella zoster). Occasionally the virus can be transmitted by mosquitos (Japanese encephalitis), ticks (tick-borne encephalitis) and mammals (rabies encephalitis)
- Problems with the immune system, where the body’s own immune system mistakenly attacks the brain
- Rarely bacteria and fungal infections
Ten symptoms and signs of encephalitis
Symptoms of encephalitis may be mild to begin with, but can progress over hours or days. Occasionally symptoms develop over weeks or months. They include:
- signs of meningitis such as fever, headache, intolerance to light and stiff neck
- eyesight problems or change in vision
- joint aches and extreme fatigue
- confusion, disorientation, agitation
- weakness or loss of movement in arms or legs
- seizures or fits
- drowsiness or loss of consciousness
- facial weakness or slurred speech
If you experience symptoms of encephalitis, you should seek urgent medical care.
Diagnosis of encephalitis, including MRI
The diagnosis of encephalitis is usually made in hospital. Tests will include:
- Blood tests, including inflammatory markers
- Lumbar puncture, to detect the cause
- Brain scans such as MRI scan. This can show typical patterns of swelling in the brain that can be the first indicator of encephalitis. Occasionally there may be signs of bleeding.
Treatment of encephalitis
- Treatment of the cause, using antiviral medication or antibiotics/ antifungals.
- Steroids and anti-seizure medication may also be used.
- Treatment often takes place on an intensive care unit (ICU) where the patient can be supported with fluids, oxygen and other more specialised treatments.
The effects of encephalitis
Nerve cells (neurons) may be damaged or destroyed and effects of encephalitis can be long-term. They can include
- recurring headaches
- difficulties with memory, concentration, balance
- mood swings, aggression
- physical problems (weakness down one side of the body, loss of sensations and of control of bodily functions and movement)
- speech and language problems
- reduced speed of thought and reaction, changes in personality and in the ability to function day-to-day
- problems with senses and hormones
The potential impact on social relationships should not be underestimated. Returning to work and school can be difficult.
Support for people with encephalitis
Recovering from encephalitis can be a long, slow and difficult process. Many people will never make a full recovery. Specialised services are available to aid recovery and help the person adapt to any persistent problems – this is known as rehabilitation.
This may involve support from:
- a neuropsychologist – a specialist in brain injuries and rehabilitation
- an occupational therapist– who can identify problem areas in the person’s everyday life and work out practical solutions
- a physiotherapist – who can help with movement problems
- a speech and language therapist – who can help with communication
The Encephalitis Society is the main support group in the uk. There is information about the disease, and advice around prevention when travelling.
Encephalitis is rare but potentially life threatening. The more information we have about the condition, the sooner we can act to seek medical attention.
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