When Your Child Has Encephalitis - Fairview Health Services
 
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When Your Child Has Encephalitis

Encephalitis is a condition in which the brain is inflamed. It is most often caused by a viral infection. Encephalitis is a rare condition. If it is very mild, it may go unrecognized, but severe cases are serious and can be life threatening. If you suspect that your child has encephalitis, contact the doctor right away. Treatment can decrease your child’s chances of long-term complications and help with recovery. 
Doctor listening to patient's breathing with stethoscope in hospital bed.

What Causes Encephalitis?

Bacteria can cause encephalitis, however the most common cause are viruses. These include viruses such as those that cause the stomach flu, chickenpox, fever blisters, or other childhood viral infections. In rare cases, encephalitis can also occur in children who have caught certain infections from an insect or animal bite or scratch. Mosquito-borne viruses can also cause encephalitis. These viruses are spread by mosquitoes and other blood-sucking insects. Mosquito-borne viruses can cause infections such as West Nile, La Crosse, St. Louis, western equine, and eastern equine encephalitis. Mosquitoes transfer the virus from animals, such as birds, chipmunks, or horses, to humans. Symptoms may appear from a few days to a couple of weeks after exposure.

In some cases, encephalitis may occur a few weeks after a viral infection. This happens because the immune system, while attacking the virus, also mistakenly attacks the brain tissue.

What Are the Symptoms of Encephalitis?

In mild cases, symptoms may appear similar to the flu. These include:

  • Fever

  • Headache

  • Poor appetite

  • Achiness

  • Fatigue

In moderate to severe cases, symptoms may include:

  • High fever

  • Headache

  • Muscle weakness, loss of sensation in some parts of the body

  • Convulsions or seizures

  • Confusion, memory loss, personality changes

  • Speech, hearing, or vision problems

  • Nausea or vomiting

  • Sleepiness

How Is Encephalitis Diagnosed?

If the encephalitis is severe, your child will likely see a pediatric neurologist for diagnosis and treatment. This is a doctor who specializes in neurologic problems in children. The doctor examines your child. He or she also asks about your child’s health history and symptoms. The following may also be done:

  • Spinal tap (also called a lumbar puncture) to check the health of the fluid around the brain and spinal cord. This fluid is called cerebrospinal fluid. During the test, the skin on the lower back is numbed with a local anesthetic. Then a needle is inserted into the spinal canal and a sample of the fluid is taken. The fluid is checked in a lab for signs of infection. The pressure of the fluid can also be measured.

  • MRI or CT scan to provide detailed pictures of the brain and check for swelling. Both tests are painless. Fluid called contrast dye may be used to make the brain easier to see. Medication can be given to help your child stay calm and lie still during the tests.

  • Blood tests to check for the presence of specific viruses.

How Is Encephalitis Treated?

Hospital care is needed for severe encephalitis. Treatment consists of fluids and medications delivered through an IV (intravenous) line. Your child may be monitored in the hospital until symptoms improve. Overall treatment time will vary for each child based on the severity of the infection. The doctor will speak with you about other forms of treatment if they are needed.

What Are the Long-Term Concerns?

Children can recover completely, and most do. But in some cases, children may have ongoing neurologic problems such as trouble with learning, reasoning, speech, or movement. Regular follow-up with the doctor may be recommended depending on your child’s condition. Supportive care, such as speech, physical, or occupational therapy, may be prescribed to help your child, if needed.

 

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