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Encephalitis in Children

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Encephalitis is a potentially life-threatening, rare viral infection of the brain. It usually affects children in their first year of life and can cause permanent brain damage or death.

What Is Encephalitis?

Encephalitis is the inflammation of the brain caused by a viral infection or occur as an autoimmune condition where the immune system attacks the brain. Many are confused between encephalitis and meningitis. Meningitis is inflammation of the protective layer of the brain and encephalitis is the inflammation of the brain. When both occur simultaneously, it is called as meningoencephalitis.

Encephalitis causes flu-like symptoms like fever or severe headache. It can even lead to seizures, confusion and problems with movement or senses. In many cases, it only leads to mild flu-like symptoms or remains asymptomatic.

In severe cases, the condition can turn fatal. It is very difficult to judge the course of encephalitis. Thus, one should remain under medical attention and get correct treatment as soon as possible.


Encephalitis causes flu-like symptoms such as fever, headache, loss of energy, poor appetite or general feeling of sickness. In severe cases, the symptoms include:

  • Buldgingfontanelles, the soft spot on baby’s head
  • High fever
  • Sensitivity to light
  • Sleepiness
  • Neck stiffness
  • Increased irritability
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  • Seizures
  • Difficulty talking
  • Changes in mental alertness
  • Confusion, hallucinations
  • Loss of appetite
  • Unsteady gait
  • Nausea and vomiting
  • Coma

In infants, you will find the crying never stops or worsens when you pick them up or handle them. The body of the infant also becomes stiffer.

As these symptoms are common to other conditions, thus, it is better to get the child examined by a doctor.


The exact cause of encephalitis is not known. However, viral infection is often the cause of encephalitis. In some cases, bacterial infections as well as noninfectious inflammatory conditions.

There are three different groups of viruses that can lead to encephalitis. These include:

  • The herpes virus that causes chickenpox, herpes simplex, Epstein-Barr virus
  • Viruses transmitted by insects such as Lyme disease, Rocky mountain spotted fever and West Nile virus
  • Viruses that cause measles, mumps and German Measles


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Diagnosis is based on various tests and procedures. These include

  • CT scans, MRI scan to check for brain swelling, bleeding, etc.
  • Electroencephalogram (EEG) to check the electrical signals in the brain
  • Blood tests to check bacterial or viral infection and see if specific antibodies are produced by the body
  • Lumbar puncture or spinal tap to test the cerebrospinal fluid for signs of infection


The treatment aims at getting rid of the infection and relieving the symptoms. The patient needs to be given plenty of bed rest, fluids to fight off the infection. The doctor may prescribe anti-inflammatory drugs like acetaminophen, ibuprofen, etc. to relieve the fever and headache.

Acyclovir, foscarnet, etc. are some of the intravenous antiviral drugs given to treat encephalitis. In many cases, the affected child is admitted to a hospital for careful monitoring and medical treatment.

The symptoms of encephalitis can last for about 1 week. However, full recovery can take many weeks. As it affects the brain, some children can develop brain damage. This causes development of seizures, problems with muscle coordination as well as learning disabilities.

Teach children to wash hands regularly to prevent infections from spreading. Give children a balanced diet that keeps them healthy and develops a strong immune system. Vaccinate children at the proper time to avoid infections. Keep children away from tick or mosquito infested areas. If you observe usual fever, lethargy and irritable child, visit a doctor immediately. It can help prevent brain damage and save a child’s life from encephalitis.

Written by: Saptakee sengupta
Date last updated: April 01, 2015

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