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Encephalitis

What is encephalitis?

Encephalitis is a term used to describe inflammation of the brain. This condition causes problems with the brain and spinal cord function. The inflammation causes the brain to swell, which leads to changes in the child's neurological condition, including mental confusion and seizures.

What causes encephalitis?

The cause of encephalitis varies depending on the season, the area of the country, and the exposure of the child. Viruses are the leading cause of encephalitis. Although vaccines for many viruses, including measles, mumps, rubella, and chickenpox have greatly lowered the rate of encephalitis from these diseases, other viruses can cause encephalitis. These include herpes simplex virus and rabies.

Encephalitis can also occur following infection by disease-carrying agents including ticks (Lyme disease and Rocky Mountain Spotted Fever), mosquitoes (West Nile virus, St. Louis encephalitis), and cats (toxoplasmosis and cat-scratch disease).

What are the symptoms of encephalitis?

Encephalitis often is preceded by a viral illness such as an upper respiratory infection, or a gastrointestinal problem such as diarrhea, nausea, or vomiting. The following are the most common symptoms of encephalitis. However, each child may experience symptoms differently. Symptoms may include:

The symptoms of encephalitis may resemble other problems or medical conditions. Always consult your child's physician for a diagnosis.

How is encephalitis diagnosed?

The diagnosis of encephalitis is made after the sudden or gradual onset of specific symptoms and after diagnostic testing. During the examination, your child's physician obtains a complete medical history of your child, including his/her immunization history. Your child's physician may also ask if your child has recently had a cold or other respiratory illness, or a gastrointestinal illness, and if the child has recently had a tick bite, has been around pets or other animals, or has traveled to certain areas of the country.

Diagnostic tests that may be performed to confirm the diagnosis of encephalitis may include the following:

Treatment for encephalitis:

Specific treatment for encephalitis will be determined by your child's physician based on:

The key to treating encephalitis is early detection and treatment. A child with encephalitis requires immediate hospitalization and close monitoring.

The goal of treatment is to reduce the swelling in the head and to prevent other related complications. Medications to control the infection, seizures, fever, or other conditions may be used.

The extent of the problem is dependent on the severity of the encephalitis and the presence of other organ system problems that could affect the child. In severe cases, a breathing machine may be required to help the child breathe easier.

As the child recovers, physical, occupational, or speech therapy may be necessary to help the child regain muscle strength and/or speech skills.

The healthcare team educates the family after hospitalization on how to best care for their child at home and outlines specific clinical problems that require immediate medical attention by his/her physician. A child with encephalitis requires frequent medical evaluations following hospitalization.

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