Hillingdon out-of-hours
Hillingdon out-of-hours

Encephalitis – not well known maybe, but life-threatening nonetheless

February 21 2017


February 22 is World Encephalitis Day and for those not familiar with the condition, read these comments from Dr Ava Easton, Chief Executive of The Encephalitis Society.

“Imagine going to sleep one night and waking up the next day a completely different person - this is essentially what it can be like for some survivors of encephalitis.”

Encephalitis is a rare but serious condition in which the brain becomes inflamed (swollen). It can be life-threatening and requires urgent treatment in hospital. Anyone can be affected, but the very young and very old are most at risk.

It's not always clear what causes encephalitis, but it can be caused by:

  • Viral infections – several common viruses can spread to the brain and cause encephalitis in rare cases, including the herpes simplex virus (which causes cold sores and genital herpes) and the chickenpox virus
  • A problem with the immune system (the body's defence against infection) – sometimes something goes wrong with the immune system and it mistakenly attacks the brain, causing it to become inflamed
  • Bacterial or fungal infections – these are much rarer causes of encephalitis than viral infections.

Encephalitis sometimes starts off with flu-like symptoms, such as a high temperature and headache, but these don't always occur. Other, more serious symptoms can then develop over a matter of weeks, days or even hours, including:

  • Confusion or disorientation
  • Seizures (fits)
  • Changes in personality and behaviour
  • Difficulty speaking
  • Weakness or loss of movement in some parts of the body
  • Loss of consciousness

Encephalitis needs to be treated in a hospital. The earlier treatment is started, the more successful it's likely to be. Dial 999 for an ambulance immediately if you or someone else has any of the symptoms.

You can't catch encephalitis from someone else. Some types of encephalitis are spread by mosquitoes (such as Japanese encephalitis), ticks (such as tick-borne encephalitis) and mammals (such as rabies).

Treatment depends on the underlying cause, but may include medical care ranging from antiviral medication, painkillers for fever reduction to breathing support. A hospital stay from encephalitis can vary from just a few days to weeks or even months.

Some people will eventually make a full recovery from encephalitis, although this can be a long and frustrating process. But many people never make a full recovery and are left with long-term problems due to damage to their brain.

Dr Eva continues: “The acquired brain injury brought about by encephalitis is very much a ‘hidden disability.’ A person you know may look exactly the same, but inside it can be a different matter. And it is not just the survivor who is affected, encephalitis and the consequences also have an impact on their families, friends, work colleagues or even school friends.

“Encephalitis has a widespread and long-lasting impact which is why our aim is to make as many people as possible aware of the condition and the devastation it can leave in its wake.”

Common complications include:

  • Memory loss 
  • Frequent seizures
  • Personality and behavioural changes
  • Problems with attention, concentration, planning and problem solving  
  • Persistent tiredness

It's not always possible to prevent encephalitis, but some of the infections that cause it can be prevented with vaccinations.

These include the:

Speak to your GP if you're not sure whether your vaccinations are up to date, or you're planning to travel abroad and don't know if you need any vaccinations.

To find out more about encephalitis, visit The Encephalitis Society website.


Photo by William Stitt via Unsplash