Viral encephalitis is a fairly common childhood condition that causes brain inflammation. Many different viruses can lead to encephalitis, including herpes, measles, and chickenpox. Most cases are mild, causing flu-like symptoms that tend to go away within one to three weeks. Some instances of viral encephalitis, however, result in severe health complications or even death without prompt treatment. After identifying the virus responsible for inflammation, a doctor can usually prescribe medications to manage symptoms and shorten healing time.
Children are at an increased risk of viral encephalitis because young immune systems are not as effective at fighting off viruses. Elderly people and individuals who have immune system disorders such as AIDS are also more susceptible to viruses. When a pathogen infiltrates the brain or spinal cord, it causes irritation and inflammation of membranes and neural cells.
A person with viral encephalitis is likely to experience feelings of weakness, headaches, and irritability. Some people develop fevers, joint pain and chills that resemble symptoms of influenza. If a virus causes widespread inflammation, an individual may have mental confusion, vision and speech problems, muscle weakness, or tremors. Some children have severe breathing difficulties and eventually lose consciousness.
The herpes simplex virus is the most common cause of encephalitis, as it is one of the most widespread pathogens in many parts of the world. Children who have not been vaccinated against measles, mumps, or rubella are also at risk of viral encephalitis complications. Many cases result from mosquito bites from insects that carry West Nile virus or a variety of equine encephalitis. In addition, rabies from an animal bite can occasionally lead to brain inflammation.
A person who shows possible signs of viral encephalitis should be brought to an emergency room or doctor's office as soon as possible. A number of tests can help confirm a diagnosis, including imaging scans of the brain and an electroencephalograph. Blood-borne viruses such as West Nile can be detected through blood tests. A patient may also need to undergo a spinal tap so a specialist can extract and analyze a sample of fluid from the spinal column. Once the nature and severity of viral encephalitis is confirmed, the doctor can determine the best way to treat it.
Mild encephalitis that is caused by a common virus does not typically require aggressive treatment. A patient typically needs to get plenty of rest, stay hydrated, and take over-the-counter anti-inflammatory drugs. A doctor may prescribe anti-viral medicines to further reduce recovery time. A severe case of encephalitis may require hospitalization and critical care. Intravenous drugs and fluids are usually given to help stabilize body symptoms and reduce the risk of seizures.