Encephalitis is inflammation of the brain. The inflammation causes the brain to swell. This leads to changes in a child's nervous system that can include confusion, changes in alertness, and seizures. Meningitis often happens at the same time as encephalitis. Meningitis is inflammation of the membranes that surround the brain and spinal cord. Both are serious and life-threatening and need to be looked at and treated right away.
Researchers think that viruses are the main cause. Children are vaccinated against many viruses such as measles, mumps, rubella, and chickenpox. This has greatly lowered the rate of encephalitis from these diseases. But other viruses can cause it. These include herpes simplex virus, West Nile virus, and rabies. Encephalitis may happen after a viral illness. This may be an upper respiratory infection, or an illness that causes diarrhea, nausea, and vomiting.
Encephalitis can also happen after a bacterial infection such as Lyme disease, tuberculosis, or syphilis. It can also happen after an infection caused by parasites, such as toxoplasmosis.
Another cause is an autoimmune reaction. This is when the body's own immune system attacks the brain tissues. For example, an antibody made against a protein called an NMDA receptor may cause encephalitis. This may be triggered by a tumor.
A child is more at risk if he or she has any of the following:
Symptoms may occur a bit differently in each child. They can include:
The symptoms of encephalitis can be like other health conditions. Make sure your child sees his or her healthcare provider right away for a diagnosis.
The healthcare provider will ask about your child’s symptoms and health history. This includes questions about your child’s vaccine history. Tell the healthcare provider if your child has recently had a cold, other respiratory illness, or a digestive illness. Also tell the healthcare provider if your child has recently had a tick bite, been around pets or other animals, or has traveled.
Your child may also have tests, such as:
Encephalitis needs treatment right away. A child needs to stay in the hospital where he or she can be closely watched.
Treatment will depend on your child’s symptoms, age, and general health. It will also depend on how severe the condition is.
The goal of treatment is to reduce the swelling in the head and to prevent complications. Your child may need to take medicines to stop the infection and control seizures or fever. In severe cases, your child may need to use a breathing machine (ventilator).
As your child recovers, he or she may need physical, occupational, or speech therapy. This will help your child regain muscle strength and speech skills.
The healthcare team will tell you how to best care for your child at home. Your child will likely need regular checkups with the healthcare provider after he or she gets home from the hospital.
Talk with your child’s healthcare providers about the risks, benefits, and possible side effects of all treatments.
Most children recover fully. But in some cases, children may have ongoing nervous system problems. These may include trouble with learning, thinking, speech, or movement. Your child may need regular follow-up with the healthcare provider. Your child may need speech, physical, or occupational therapy to recover.
Encephalitis is a serious and life-threatening condition that needs to be looked at and treated right away. If your child has symptoms, call your healthcare provider right away.
After treatment for encephalitis, call the healthcare provider if your child has:
Tips to help you get the most from a visit to your child’s healthcare provider:
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