What is encephalitis?
Encephalitis is a condition that is caused when there is an acute inflammation or swelling of the brain which is usually caused by a viral infection. The brain becomes inflamed when the body is attempting to fight off the virus. However in certain cases of encephalitis, the inflammation is caused by the body’s immune system attacking the brain tissue by mistake. While encephalitis is a rare condition, it is a serious and life-threatening Disease which requires Treatment immediately. The mortality rate depends on several factors including the patient’s age and the severity of the Disease. While younger patients usually recover without other health issues, it can lead to complications in older patients.
Mild flu-like Symptoms is the most common Symptom of viral encephalitis. They include
- Weakness or fatigue
- Muscle and joint aches
In certain cases the Symptoms could be more severe and could include
- Paralysis or a loss of sensation in certain areas of the body and face
- Hallucination or delirium
- Disorientation or an altered level of consciousness
- Problems with speech and hearing
- Nausea or vomiting
- Problems with co-ordination
- Muscle contractions
Infants and children suffering from encephalitis exhibit different Symptoms like
- Poor appetite
- The soft spot on the head (fontanel) appears to be bulging
- Body stiffness
You should call your paediatrician immediately if your child shows any of these Symptoms.
Who is at Risk?
Some of the encephalitis Risk Factors are
- Children who are under the age of 1 and older adults are at a Risk of contracting encephalitis causing viruses that are more severe or more common in these age groups.
- People who have weak immune systems like individuals who are on certain medication that can weaken the immune system or people who have HIV/AIDS are at a higher Risk of contracting encephalitis.
- Geographical location- People who live in areas where mosquitos and ticks are common are at a higher Risk of contracting encephalitis as ticks and mosquitoes are carriers of the virus that Causes encephalitis. Since these insects are most active in the summer and monsoon, chances of contracting this Disease during these seasons are higher.
In very rare cases the MMR vaccination (measles, mumps, rubella) has caused encephalitis in children.
The most common cause of encephalitis is usually a viral infection. The two main types of encephalitis are primary encephalitis and secondary encephalitis.
Primary encephalitis is a condition that occurs when a virus directly infects the brain. The infection may remain in one are or it may spread. A primary infection could also be a reactivation of a virus that may have been inactive after a previous illness.
Secondary encephalitis occurs when the immune system lands up attacking healthy cells in the body instead of attacking only the cells that are causing the infection. Secondary encephalitis also known as post-infection encephalitis usually occurs a few weeks after the initial infection.
Some of the viruses that cause encephalitis are
- Herpes simplex virus (HSV)
- Mosquito borne viruses
- Tick-borne viruses
- Rabies virus
- Childhood infections
If the doctor identifies the common Symptoms of encephalitis like headache, fever, confusion, poor appetite or other related Symptoms related to encephalitis the doctor may ask you to undergo some further encephalitis lab tests to properly Diagnose the illness. Some of these tests include:
- Lumbar puncture or spinal tap- in this test, the doctor will collect a sample of the spinal fluid by inserting a needle into the lower back. This fluid is tested for Signs of infection.
- CT or MRI scan-MRIs and CT scans can detect any changes in the brains structure. This can also rule out the possibility of tumours and strokes. Certain viruses affect certain parts of the brain and with the CT scan or MRI the doctor can determine which part of the brain is infected and thereby determine what virus the patient has.
- Electroencephalograph (EEG)- this procedure is done by attaching small metal discs with wires to the scalp to record brain activity. Certain changes in regular brain activity patterns can indicate which area of the brain is infected.
While the Treatment for mild encephalitis just requires plenty of bed rest and fluids, the doctor may prescribe anit-inflammatory drugs that help with relieving the headaches and fevers. The Treatment of encephalitis depends on the underlying virus causing the Disease. For encephalitis from herpes, anti-viral medications, which reduce the virus’s ability to replicate, help in the Treatment. However the same medication is ineffective in Treating encephalitis caused by other viruses. Most often the Treatment of encephalitis is focused on relieving the Symptoms and these include:
- Anti-convulsant medication that helps in Preventing and controlling seizures
- Pain killers
- Sedatives that help with irritability, aggressiveness and restlessness
- Corticosteroids that help in reducing the brain inflammation
- Fluid replacement and IV fluids
- Luke warm sponge baths
How can encephalitis be Prevented?
While the most effective way of Preventing encephalitis is by keeping up-to-date with your vaccinations especially vaccines like the MMR vaccine for mumps, measles and rubella. Since mosquitoes are known to be carriers of viruses that cause encephalitis you should try and get rid of standing water sources around your home which can be breeding ground for mosquitoes. Common problem areas include flat roofs, clogged gutters flower pots and other gardening containers. Try and keep yourself from getting regularly bitten by mosquitoes by avoiding going out at specific times during the day when there are large number of mosquitoes about and wear mosquito repellent when stepping out.