About encephalitis

Encephalitis is inflammation of the brain tissue. This stops the brain from working properly. It’s a serious condition.

Encephalitis can happen in children of all ages, although it’s fairly uncommon.

Encephalitis is a medical emergency and needs immediate treatment. If you think your child might have encephalitis, take him straight to the nearest hospital emergency department.

Causes of encephalitis

The most common cause of encephalitis is a viral infection. The virus that most commonly causes encephalitis is herpes simplex virus, which also causes cold sores. Other viral causes include enteroviruses and chickenpox, measles and glandular fever viruses.

Encephalitis can also be caused by a bacterial infection, but this is less common.

Sometimes encephalitis might happen because of autoimmune disease.

For some people, the cause of encephalitis is never found.

Encephalitis symptoms

Encephalitis usually comes on very suddenly.

A child with encephalitis can:

  • become sleepy
  • be confused
  • start acting strangely
  • have sudden changes in her personality.

Sometimes, a child might complain of a severe headache, have a fever or have vomiting.

The illness can progress, causing symptoms like seizures, muscle weakness or paralysis. It might eventually lead to a coma.

Does your child need to see a doctor about encephalitis?

Yes. Your child needs immediate medical attention.

Take your child to the emergency department straight away if your child:

  • is generally unwell, confused, not responding normally or has a sudden change in personality
  • has a viral illness like chickenpox, measles or glandular fever and starts to complain of severe headaches, or suddenly appears to be very drowsy or confused.

Tests for encephalitis

If doctors think there’s a possibility of encephalitis, they’ll do lots of tests to confirm your child’s diagnosis and work out the cause of the inflammation.

Your child might have blood tests, a lumbar puncture or an MRI.

Treatment for encephalitis

If your child has encephalitis, he’ll need to spend some time in hospital for close monitoring and care.

In hospital, your child might be given specific antiviral medications and antibiotics, which sometimes can help.

If the encephalitis is severe, especially in younger children, there’s a risk of longer-term complications like muscle weakness or speech problems.

Prevention of encephalitis

Make sure that your child is up to date with all her immunisations. This will help protect her against some of the causes of encephalitis.

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