Encephalitis

Encephalitis

Overview

Encephalitis is an acute inflammation of the brain, usually caused by an infection. The infection could be viral, bacterial, fungal or due to autoimmune causes. Primary encephalitis occurs when an infection or inflammation directly affects the spinal cord or the brain. Secondary encephalitis is when an infection starts in another part of the body, and spreads to the brain or the spine through the blood stream. Encephalitis can cause cognitive problems, vision loss, hearing loss, seizures or movement problems. Encephalitis is a relatively rare disease, but it can be life-threatening.

Signs and symptoms

Patients with viral encephalitis in the initial stages experience fever, headaches, muscle pains and fatigue. More severe cases experience symptoms such as seizures, speech impairment, hallucinations, loss of consciousness or a coma. Infants with encephalitis may develop a fontanel, which is a bulge or a soft spot in the skull.

Causes

Encephalitis is usually caused by a viral infection. Less commonly, it could be caused by a bacterial or a fungal infection. HIV, herpes, polio virus, West Nile virus, mumps and the rabies virus could cause encephalitis. Autoimmune encephalitis is another cause which involves an immune mediated attack on the brain cells.

Risk factors

Immuno-compromised patients, infants and geriatric adults are the most at-risk demographics for encephalitis. People living in mosquito-infested areas are also at a higher risk of encephalitis because mosquitoes typically carry viruses that trigger it.

Complications

Patients diagnosed with severe encephalitis are likely to develop loss of memory, personality changes, epilepsy, fatigue, intellectual deficits, difficulty breathing, speech impairment, loss of vision or loss of hearing. In extreme cases, the patient may go into a coma. Encephalitis, if treated too late or left untreated, can be fatal.

Diagnosis

Encephalitis is diagnosed on the basis of patient medical history, a physical and neurological exam, a panel of blood and urine tests to check for infections or autoimmune antibodies, a spinal tap, an electroencephalogram (EEG) and a brain biopsy.

Treatment

Mild cases of encephalitis are treated with bed rest, plenty of fluids and anti-inflammatory medications. The treatment largely focuses on alleviating symptoms. Encephalitis caused by certain infections like herpes respond to anti-viral drug treatments. However, not all viral infections respond well to this therapy. Anti-convulsant drugs are prescribed to patients who develop frequent seizures as a result of the inflammation. Immunosuppresants are used to treat patients with autoimmune encephalitis.

Prevention

The best way to avoid contracting encephalitis is to get vaccinated properly for all the common illnesses as prescribed by the local health authority in your area. Preventing the infestation of mosquitoes in your immediate living environment, and using mosquito repellent could also help prevent contracting pathogens that cause encephalitis.

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