Encephalitis refers to severe inflammation of the brain tissue. While it is a rare condition affecting just one in every 200,000 people in the US, it can be fatal, requiring urgent medical attention. Viral infections commonly cause inflammation. However, bacteria and fungi, which are very uncommon, can also be the cause.
There are two main kinds of Encephalitis: primary and secondary Encephalitis.
The primary type is when an encephalitis virus directly attacks the brain and spinal cord. On the other hand, secondary Encephalitis is when an infection begins in another part of the body and then makes its way to the brain. Rather than attacking only the infection-causing cells, the immune system accidentally also attacks healthy brain cells. Secondary Encephalitis is also known as post-infection Encephalitis.
Encephalitis often leads to alterations in neurological functions, often manifested in seizures, mental confusion, sight and hearing problems, and movement problems. However, some people only experience mild flu-like symptoms, while others experience no symptoms at all.
The Encephalitis virus can affect anyone.
The young and the old are at most risk or susceptible; however, people with HIV account for 15% of all cases. Additionally, this condition is responsible for over 19,000 hospitalizations and over $650 million in medical bills. It also accounts for 230,000 hospitalization days.
Causes of Viral Encephalitis
Next, we will review the different kinds of viruses can cause Encephalitis. They include the following:
- Herpes Simplex Virus: This is the most common cause of Encephalitis in first-world countries. Both HSV type 1 and HSV type 2 are known to cause Encephalitis. While HSV type 1 encephalitis is rare, it can cause severe brain damage, and in some cases, death.
- Epstein Barr Virus: This herpes virus is responsible for infectious mononucleosis. It is known to cause Encephalitis.
- Childhood Viruses: Innumerable childhood infections, including measles, chickenpox, and rubella, have been associated with Encephalitis. However, thanks to the availability of vaccines, childhood viruses are now an infrequent cause of Encephalitis.
- Enteroviruses: They are a group of viruses that are responsible for mild infectious diseases. However, in some cases, they can attack the central nervous system and cause serious illness.
- Rabies Virus: The rabies virus can transmit through an infected animal’s bite. After the symptoms start to arise, this infection can quickly progress to Encephalitis.
- Tick-borne Viruses: Certain viruses such as the Powassan virus and the Kyasanur forest disease are transmitted through bites from infected ticks and can cause Encephalitis.
- Mosquito-borne Viruses: Mosquito-borne viruses such as the West Nile virus, western and eastern equine virus, and the St. Louis virus are associated with Encephalitis.
Besides viral Encephalitis, there are some other rare causes of Encephalitis:
- Bacteria infections, for example, can cause bacterial meningitis
- Parasites such as toxoplasmosis present in infected feline feces that are among people with weakened immune systems
- Complications from infectious illnesses such as syphilis
Symptoms of Encephalitis Virus
As you have read, symptoms of Encephalitis are many and tend to vary depending on the area of the brain that is affected. Encephalitis often comes about after one has suffered a viral illness, or after a gastrointestinal disease.
The following are some common symptoms of Encephalitis:
– Vomiting and nausea
– Light sensitivity
– Loss of appetite
– Loss of concentration
– Mild flu-like symptoms
– Stiffness in the neck
– Behavior alterations
In more severe cases, Encephalitis can lead to seizures and a coma.
How is Encephalitis Treated?
There isn’t a magic pill for Encephalitis. However, there are antiviral medications for herpes encephalitis. Treatment for Encephalitis focuses on alleviating the specific symptoms. Quick detection and treatment are crucial to ensure fast and effective recovery.
A patient suffering from Encephalitis needs to be closely monitored by a healthcare professional. Reducing swelling in the head and preventing the occurrence of other complications is the primary treatment. Medicines like acyclovir (Zovirax) Ganciclovir (Cytovene) Foscarnet (Foscavir) manage the infection, fever, seizures, among other symptoms.
In cases where a faulty immune system response has caused Encephalitis, the healthcare specialist will provide treatment to subdue the immune system.
The treatment regime for Encephalitis often includes:
- IV therapy
- Mechanical ventilation for patients with breathing difficulties
- Warm sponge baths
- Administration of sedatives to treat increased irritability
- Administration of anticonvulsants to avoid and manage seizures
- Corticosteroids to reduce inflammation in the brain
- Use of painkillers
When symptoms include seizures and brain swelling, the patient will need hospitalization during treatment.
How Long Does Encephalitis Last?
Based on the kind of encephalitis virus and the severity of the condition, Encephalitis can last from days, weeks to months.
In most cases, the acute phase or the most pronounced symptoms can last for a week. However, full recovery from Encephalitis can take several weeks or months.
How to Prevent Encephalitis Virus Infection
Even though Encephalitis isn’t always preventable, you can significantly reduce your risk by taking the necessary precautions to prevent exposure to viruses that lead to the problem. This means:
Getting vaccinated: One of the most effective ways of preventing Encephalitis is to keep your immunization and that of your children current. Vaccines are crucial in avoiding Encephalitis. As earlier discussed, vaccinations for viruses like rubella, mumps, and measles have significantly reduced the rate of encephalitis infections from such illnesses.
In case you are traveling to a destination that has a high risk of viral encephalitis infection, then it is essential to consult your healthcare provider on the recommended vaccinations.
Maintain proper hygiene: To avoid the spread of viruses and Encephalitis, it is vital to regularly and thoroughly wash your hands. It is essential to teach your children how to practice proper hygiene and instill this behavior.
Avoid exposure to mosquitoes and ticks: If you visit an area infested with mosquitoes and ticks, then remember to carry repellants and wear long pants and sleeves. Avoid any unnecessary activities in such areas.
It is also crucial to eliminate any standing water within and around your home as it offers a perfect breeding ground for mosquitoes.
Check for signs of viral infections in and around your home, such as sick and dying animals and birds. If you happen to identify either of these signs, you should immediately report it to the local health department.
What are the Risk Factors for Encephalitis?
While anyone can get Encephalitis, four factors can raise your risk of developing this condition, and they include:
- Age: The virus is more prevalent and severe in certain age groups. Children below one year have a high risk of developing Encephalitis.
- Weak Immune Systems: For instance, people who have HIV/AIDS have to take drugs that suppress their immune system or suffer from conditions that affect their immune system. Suppressing your immune system increases the risk of developing Encephalitis.
- Geographical Area: Certain regions have a high concentration of mosquito-borne and tick-borne viruses. If you travel or live in these areas, then you have a high risk of getting infected.
- Time of the Year: Tick-borne and mosquito-borne illnesses are prevalent during the summer season in the US.
As mentioned earlier, quick detection and treatment are crucial in preventing the condition from progressing. The more an infected person delays, the more likely they are to suffer from severe Encephalitis. Thus, it is crucial to consult a medical specialist immediately you suspect signs of the virus.
Is Encephalitis Infectious?
While the condition itself (inflammation of the brain) isn’t infectious, the viruses that lead to it are easily transmittable through coughs and sneezes from an infected person. However, it is essential to note that getting the virus doesn’t mean you will develop symptoms.
How Is Encephalitis Diagnosed?
Considering that the signs and symptoms of Encephalitis can have plenty of potential causes, you might have to undergo a few tests like:
If you have Encephalitis, your doctor will take a brain scan. The scan will determine if you also have a brain tumor, stroke, or brain aneurysm, which refers to a swelling in the artery.
Lumbar puncture is an operation done to extract fluid surrounding the spinal cord and test it for signs of the virus.
Blood, urine, and other bodily fluid tests
Bodily fluid tests check for viruses. Blood tests identify antibodies’ presence, which are specific proteins produced by the body to fight infections.
This procedure involves placing tiny electrodes on your scalp that detect and record electrical signals from the brain and check for any abnormal brain activity.
Hopefully, this article has helped you gain a better understanding of Encephalitis.
It is always best to consult your healthcare provider for further information and advice. Take note of all the discussed signs and symptoms, and if you or a loved one start showing any of these signs, especially the severe ones, you need to contact a doctor immediately.
This article was written by Sherry L. Harris