The infection ate my brain! Learn about encephalitis, a type of brain damage caused by infection

The title of this article makes light of a serious condition called encephalitis. What is encephalitis?  And, how serious is this condition?   According to research, encephalitis is irritation and swelling (inflammation) of the brain, most often due to infections.  Because the brain tissue swells (cerebral edema), it may destroy nerve cells, cause bleeding in the brain (intracerebral hemorrhage), and brain damage.

Damned If You Do, Damned If You Don’t

Encephalitis is potential side-effct of vaccination. However, it is also a potential result of diseases vaccines are designed to prevent. This creates a “damned if you do, damned if you don’t” type of situation. Encephalitis occurs more often in the first year of life and decreases with age. The very young and the elderly are more likely to have a severe case of the disease.

Encephalitis = Viral Infection

Encephalitis is most often caused by a viral infection. Many types of viruses may cause it, including those found in live virus vaccines (MMR, Varicella and combination MMR and Varicella vaccine). With that being said, exposure to viruses can also occur through breathing in respiratory droplets from an infected person, from contaminated food or drink, from a mosquito, tick, and other insect bites, or through skin contact.

Beware of flu-like symptoms after vaccination

Encephalitis can cause flu-like symptoms, such as a fever or severe headache, as well as confused thinking, seizures, or problems with senses or movement. Many cases of encephalitis may go unnoticed because they result in only mild flu-like symptoms or even no symptoms. Severe cases of encephalitis can be life-threatening.

Because the course of any single case of encephalitis is relatively unpredictable, it’s important to get a timely diagnosis and treatment.

The Usual Suspects: Encephalitis Worse In Very Young And Very Old

Anyone can develop encephalitis. Factors that may increase the risk of the condition include: age, a weakened immune system, geographic regions, outdoor activities and the season of the year.

Some types of encephalitis are more prevalent or more severe in certain age groups. In general, young children and older adults are at greater risk of most types of viral encephalitis. Encephalitis from the herpes simplex virus tends to be more common in people 20 to 40 years of age.

People who have HIV/AIDS, take immune-suppressing drugs, or have another condition causing a compromised or weakened immune system are at increased risk of encephalitis.

Mosquito-borne or tick-borne viruses are common in particular geographic regions, therefore possibly leading to encephalitis.

Outdoor activities or work that results in more exposure to ticks or mosquitoes increases the risk of encephalitis.

Mosquito- and tick-borne diseases tend to be more prevalent in summer and early fall in many areas of the United States. In warmer areas of the U.S., however, mosquitoes and ticks may be present year-round.

How To Diagnose? It’s Not So Easy.

Questions about symptoms, risk factors and medical history are important in making a diagnosis of encephalitis. Diagnostic tests that may be needed include the following: brain imaging, spinal tap, Electroencephalogram (EEG), a brain biopsy, or other lab tests, such as blood, urine or excretions from the back of the throat.

OK. I’m Sick, Now What?

The goals of treatment are to provide supportive care (rest, nutrition, fluids) to help the body fight the infection, and to relieve symptoms. Reorientation and emotional support for confused or delirious people may be helpful.  There are also several medication options, that may include: Antiviral medications, such as acyclovir (Zovirax) and foscarnet (Foscavir) — to treat herpes encephalitis or other severe viral infections (however, no specific antiviral drugs are available to fight encephalitis); Antibiotics — if the infection is caused by certain bacteria; Anti-seizure medications (such as phenytoin) — to prevent seizures; Steroids (such as dexamethasone) — to reduce brain swelling (in rare cases); Sedatives — to treat irritability or restlessness; and Acetaminophen — for fever and headache.

If brain function is severely affected, interventions like physical therapy and speech therapy may be needed after the illness is controlled.

This information was obtained from PubMed Health and the Mayo Clinic.  For additional  information on encephalitis, be sure to speak with your doctor as soon as possible.

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