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Health > Kids > Encephalitis


Meningitis is primarily an inflammation of the lining of the brain and spinal cord, and sometimes of the brain itself. Encephalitis is primarily an inflammation of the brain.

What are the symptoms of encephalitis?

Encephalitis often is preceded by a viral illness such as an upper respiratory infection, or a gastrointestinal problem such as diarrhea, nausea, or vomiting. The following are the most common symptoms of encephalitis. However, each child may experience symptoms differently. Symptoms may include:

Headache (or bulging of the fontanelles, the soft spots on a baby's head)

Sensitivity to light

Neck stiffness

Sleepiness or lethargy

Increased irritability

Skin rashes

Difficulty talking and speech changes

Changes in alertness, confusion, or hallucinations

What causes encephalitis?

The cause of encephalitis varies depending on the season, the area of the country, and the exposure of the child. Viruses are the leading cause of encephalitis. Although vaccines for many viruses, including measles, mumps, rubella, and chickenpox have greatly lowered the rate of encephalitis from these diseases, other viruses can cause encephalitis. These include herpes simplex virus and rabies.

Encephalitis can also occur following infection by disease-carrying agents including ticks (Lyme disease and Rocky Mountain Spotted Fever), mosquitoes , and cats (toxoplasmosis and cat-scratch disease).


Some children with very mild encephalitis can be monitored at home, but most will need care in a hospital, usually in an intensive care unit. Doctors will carefully monitor their blood pressure, heart rate, and breathing, as well as their body fluids, to prevent further swelling of the brain.

Because antibiotics aren't effective against viruses, they aren't used to treat encephalitis. However, antiviral drugs can be used to treat some forms of encephalitis, especially the type caused by the herpes simplex virus. Corticosteroids may also be used in some cases to reduce brain swelling. If a child is having seizures, anticonvulsants may also be given.

Over-the-counter (OTC) medications, like acetaminophen, can be used to treat fever and headaches.

Most people with encephalitis make a full recovery. In a small percentage of cases, swelling of the brain can lead to permanent brain damage and lasting complications like learning disabilities, speech problems, memory loss, or lack of muscle control. Speech, physical, or occupational therapy may be necessary in these cases.

Rarely, if the brain damage is severe, encephalitis can lead to death. Infants younger than 1 year and adults older than 55 are at greatest risk of death from encephalitis.

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