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encephalitis in children

Encephalitis in children

Encephalitis is a term used to describe inflammation of the brain. The inflammation causes the brain to swell, which leads to changes in the child’s neurological condition, including mental confusion and seizures. Encephalitis can be life threatening and requires urgent treatment in hospital.

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

Some types of encephalitis are spread by mosquitoes (such as Japanese encephalitis), ticks (such as tick-borne encephalitis) and mammals (such as rabies).

You cannot catch encephalitis from someone else.

Encephalitis often causes only mild flu-like signs and symptoms such as a fever or headache or no symptoms at all. Sometimes the flu-like symptoms are more severe. Encephalitis can also cause confused thinking, seizures, or problems with movement or with senses such as sight or hearing.

In some cases, encephalitis can be life-threatening. Timely diagnosis and treatment are important because it’s difficult to predict how encephalitis will affect each individual.

Encephalitis needs to be treated in a hospital. The earlier treatment is started, the more successful it’s likely to be.

Specific treatment for encephalitis will be determined by your child’s doctor based on:

  • Your child’s age, overall health, and medical history
  • The extent of the condition
  • Your child’s tolerance for specific medications, procedures, or therapies
  • Expectations for the course of the condition
  • Your opinion or preference

The key to treating encephalitis is early detection and treatment. A child with encephalitis requires immediate hospitalization and close monitoring. Sometimes, depending on what doctors think the specific cause of the encephalitis is, certain medications can be used to fight infections that may cause it.

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.

Treatment depends on the underlying cause, but may include:

  • antiviral medicines
  • steroid injections
  • treatments to help control the immune system
  • antibiotics or antifungal medicines
  • painkillers to reduce discomfort or a high temperature
  • medicine to control seizures or fits
  • support with breathing, such as oxygen through a face mask or a breathing machine (ventilator)

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

How long someone with encephalitis needs to stay in hospital can range from a few days to several weeks or even months.

Your health care team will educate you and your family after hospitalization on how to best care for your child at home and outlines specific clinical problems that require immediate medical attention by his or her doctor. A child with encephalitis requires frequent medical evaluations following hospitalization.

When to see a doctor

Get immediate care if you are experiencing any of the more-severe symptoms associated with encephalitis. A severe headache, fever and altered consciousness require urgent care.

Infants and young children with any signs or symptoms of encephalitis should receive urgent care.

Is encephalitis contagious?

Brain inflammation itself is not contagious. But the viruses that cause encephalitis can be. Of course, getting a virus does not mean that someone will develop encephalitis.

Encephalitis in children causes

There are more than 100 different recognized causes that can lead to encephalitis in children and many of these differ with respect to the season, the area of the country, and the exposure of the child. According to a new review of medical records 1), viral, bacterial and autoimmune causes account for most cases of encephalitis in children, but more than four in 10 have no recognized cause.

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 (HSV), human herpesvirus 6 (HHV-6), West Nile virus (carried by mosquitoes), varicella zoster virus and rabies (carried by a number of different animals).

Encephalitis can also occur following a bacterial infection, such as Bartonella henselae (the cause of cat scratch fever), Lyme disease (carried by ticks), Streptococcus pneumoniae, Rickettsia rickettsii (the cause of Rocky Mountain spotted fever), tuberculosis and syphilis, and by parasites, such as toxoplasmosis (carried by cats).

Autoimmune and immune-mediated causes of encephalitis represented 45% of all patients with an identified etiology. The most frequently identified single cause in this group was anti-N-methyl-D-aspartate receptor (NMDAR) encephalitis 2). Second most common was acute disseminated encephalomyelitis (ADEM) 3).

Male patients were more likely to present with infectious causes, whereas female patients were more likely to have autoimmune causes. The proportion of autoimmune cases relative to infectious cases increased with increasing age.

Compared with autoimmune encephalitis, infectious encephalitis was more likely to occur in immunocompromised patients and to be associated with abnormal brain MRI findings.

Common viral causes

The viruses that can cause encephalitis include:

  • Herpes simplex virus (HSV). Both HSV type 1 — associated with cold sores and fever blisters around your mouth — and HSV type 2 — associated with genital herpes — can cause encephalitis. Encephalitis caused by HSV type 1 is rare but can result in significant brain damage or death.
  • Other herpes viruses. These include the Epstein-Barr virus, which commonly causes infectious mononucleosis, and the varicella-zoster virus, which commonly causes chickenpox and shingles.
  • Enteroviruses. These viruses include the poliovirus and the coxsackievirus, which usually cause an illness with flu-like symptoms, eye inflammation and abdominal pain.
  • Mosquito-borne viruses. These viruses can cause infections such as West Nile, La Crosse, St. Louis, western equine and eastern equine encephalitis. Symptoms of an infection might appear within a few days to a couple of weeks after exposure to a mosquito-borne virus.
  • Tick-borne viruses. The Powassan virus is carried by ticks and causes encephalitis in the Midwestern United States. Symptoms usually appear about a week after a bite from an infected tick.
  • Rabies virus. Infection with the rabies virus, which is usually transmitted by a bite from an infected animal, causes a rapid progression to encephalitis once symptoms begin. Rabies is a rare cause of encephalitis in the United States.
  • Childhood infections. Common childhood infections — such as measles (rubeola), mumps and German measles (rubella) — used to be fairly common causes of secondary encephalitis. These causes are now rare in the United States due to the availability of vaccinations for these diseases.

Encephalitis in children prevention

It’s not always possible to prevent encephalitis, but some of the infections that cause it can be prevented with vaccinations. Keep your own and your children’s vaccinations current. Before traveling, talk to your doctor about recommended vaccinations for different destinations.

Vaccinations include the:

  • measles, mumps and rubella (MMR) vaccine – a routine vaccination offered to all children in England
  • Japanese encephalitis vaccine – recommended for travelers to at-risk areas, such as parts of Asia
  • tick-borne encephalitis vaccine – recommended for travelers to certain parts of Europe (but not the UK) and Asia
  • rabies vaccination – recommended for travelers to at-risk areas where access to medical care is likely to be limited

Speak to a doctor if you’re not sure whether your vaccinations are up to date, or you’re planning to travel abroad and do not know if you need any vaccinations.

The best way to prevent viral encephalitis is to take precautions to avoid exposure to viruses that can cause the disease.

  • Practice good hygiene. Wash hands frequently and thoroughly with soap and water, particularly after using the toilet and before and after meals.
  • Don’t share utensils. Don’t share tableware and beverages.
  • Teach your children good habits. Make sure they practice good hygiene and avoid sharing utensils at home and school.

Protection against mosquitoes and ticks

To minimize your exposure to mosquitoes and ticks:

  • Dress to protect yourself. Wear long-sleeved shirts and long pants if you’re outside between dusk and dawn when mosquitoes are most active, and when you’re in a wooded area with tall grasses and shrubs where ticks are more common.
  • Apply mosquito repellent. Chemicals such as DEET can be applied to both the skin and clothes. To apply repellent to your face, spray it on your hands and then wipe it on your face. If you’re using both sunscreen and a repellent, apply sunscreen first.
  • Use insecticide. The Environmental Protection Agency recommends the use of products containing permethrin, which repels and kills ticks and mosquitoes. These products can be sprayed on clothing, tents and other outdoor gear. Permethrin shouldn’t be applied to the skin.
  • Avoid mosquitoes. Refrain from unnecessary activity in places where mosquitoes are most common. If possible, avoid being outdoors from dusk till dawn, when mosquitoes are most active. Repair broken windows and screens.
  • Get rid of water sources outside your home. Eliminate standing water in your yard, where mosquitoes can lay their eggs. Common problems include flowerpots or other gardening containers, flat roofs, old tires and clogged gutters.
  • Look for outdoor signs of viral disease. If you notice sick or dying birds or animals, report your observations to your local health department.

Protection for young children

Insect repellents aren’t recommended for use on infants younger than 2 months of age. Instead, cover an infant carrier or stroller with mosquito netting.

For older infants and children, repellents with 10% to 30% DEET are considered safe. Products containing both DEET and sunscreen aren’t recommended for children because reapplication — which might be necessary for the sunscreen component — will expose the child to too much DEET.

Tips for using mosquito repellent with children include:

  • Always assist children with the use of mosquito repellent.
  • Spray on clothing and exposed skin.
  • Apply the repellent when outdoors to lessen the risk of inhaling the repellent.
  • Spray repellent on your hands and then apply it to your child’s face. Take care around the eyes and ears.
  • Don’t use repellent on the hands of young children who may put their hands in their mouths.
  • Wash treated skin with soap and water when you come indoors.

Encephalitis in children symptoms

Encephalitis sometimes starts off with flu-like symptoms, such as a high temperature and headache.

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:

  • Fever
  • Headache (or bulging of the fontanelles, the soft spots on a baby’s head)
  • Sensitivity to light
  • Neck stiffness
  • Sleepiness or lethargy
  • Increased irritability
  • Seizures or fits
  • Skin rashes
  • Difficulty talking and speech changes
  • Changes in alertness, confusion, or hallucinations
  • Confusion or disorientation
  • Changes in personality and behavior
  • Weakness or loss of movement in some parts of the body
  • Loss of energy
  • Loss of appetite
  • Unsteady gait
  • Nausea and vomiting
  • Loss of consciousness

The symptoms of encephalitis may resemble other problems or medical conditions. Call for an ambulance immediately if you or someone else has these symptoms.

Symptoms of encephalitis may be mild to begin with, but can become more serious over hours or days.

Occasionally the symptoms may develop gradually over several weeks or even months.

Early symptoms

The first symptoms of encephalitis can be similar to flu, such as:

  • a high temperature
  • a headache
  • feeling and being sick
  • aching muscles and joints

Some people may also have a spotty or blistery rash on their skin.

But these early symptoms do not always appear and sometimes the first signs of encephalitis may be more serious symptoms.

Serious symptoms

More severe symptoms develop when the brain is affected, such as:

  • confusion or disorientation
  • drowsiness
  • seizures or fits
  • changes in personality and behavior, such as feeling very agitated
  • difficulty speaking
  • weakness or loss of movement in some parts of the body
  • seeing and hearing things that are not there (hallucinations)
  • loss of feeling in certain parts of the body
  • uncontrollable eye movements, such as side-to-side eye movement
  • eyesight problems
  • loss of consciousness

There may also be symptoms of meningitis, such as a severe headache, sensitivity to bright lights, a stiff neck and a spotty rash that does not fade when a glass is pressed against it.

Call your local emergency services number immediately to request an ambulance if you or someone else has serious symptoms of encephalitis.

It’s a medical emergency that needs to be seen in hospital as soon as possible.

Pediatric encephalitis common complications

Encephalitis can damage the brain and cause long-term problems including:

  • memory problems
  • personality and behavioral changes
  • speech and language problems
  • swallowing problems
  • repeated seizures or fits – known as epilepsy
  • emotional and psychological problems, such as anxiety, depression and mood swings
  • problems with attention, concentrating, planning and problem solving
  • problems with balance, co-ordination and movement
  • persistent tiredness

These problems can have a significant impact on the life of the affected person, as well as their family, friends and carers.

Inflammation can injure the brain, possibly resulting in a coma or death.

Encephalitis in children diagnosis

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 doctor obtains a complete medical history of your child, including his or her immunization history. Your child’s doctor 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:

  • X-ray. A diagnostic test that uses invisible electromagnetic energy beams to produce images of internal tissues, bones, and organs onto film.
  • Magnetic resonance imaging (MRI). A diagnostic procedure that uses a combination of large magnets, radiofrequencies, and a computer to produce detailed images of organs and structures within the body.
  • Computed tomography scan (also called a CT or CAT scan). A diagnostic imaging procedure that uses a combination of X-rays and computer technology to produce horizontal, or axial, images (often called slices) of the body. A CT scan shows detailed images of any part of the body, including the bones, muscles, fat, and organs. CT scans are more detailed than general X-rays.
  • Blood tests
  • Urine and stool tests
  • Sputum culture. A diagnostic test performed on the material that is coughed up from the lungs and into the mouth. A sputum culture is often performed to determine if an infection is present.
  • Electroencephalogram (EEG). A procedure that records the brain’s continuous, electrical activity by means of electrodes attached to the scalp.
  • Lumbar puncture (spinal tap). A special needle is placed into the lower back, into the spinal canal. This is the area around the spinal cord. The pressure in the spinal canal and brain can then be measured. A small amount of cerebral spinal fluid (CSF) can be removed and sent for testing to determine if there is an infection or other problems. CSF is the fluid that bathes your child’s brain and spinal cord.
  • Brain biopsy. In rare cases, a biopsy of affected brain tissue may be removed for diagnosis.

Encephalitis in children treatment

Encephalitis needs to be treated urgently. Treatment involves tackling the underlying cause, relieving symptoms and supporting bodily functions.

It’s treated in hospital – usually in an intensive care unit (ICU), which is for children who are very ill and need extra care.

How long someone with encephalitis needs to stay in hospital can range from a few days to several weeks or even months.

Treating the cause

If a cause of encephalitis is found, treatment will start straight away.

Possible treatments include:

  • antiviral medicine – used if encephalitis is caused by the herpes simplex or chickenpox viruses; it’s usually given into a vein three times a day for 2 to 3 weeks.
    • Antiviral medications commonly used to treat encephalitis include:
      • Acyclovir (Zovirax)
      • Ganciclovir (Cytovene)
      • Foscarnet (Foscavir)
    • Some viruses, such as insect-borne viruses, don’t respond to these treatments. But because the specific virus may not be identified immediately or at all, doctors often recommend immediate treatment with acyclovir. Acyclovir can be effective against HSV, which can result in significant complications when not treated promptly.
    • Antiviral medications are generally well tolerated. Rarely, side effects can include kidney damage.
  • steroid injections – used if encephalitis is caused by a problem with the immune system and sometimes in cases linked to the chickenpox virus; treatment is usually for a few days
  • immunoglobulin therapy – medicine that helps control the immune system
  • plasmapheresis – a procedure which removes the substances that are attacking the brain from the blood
  • surgery to remove abnormal growths (tumors) – if encephalitis was triggered by a tumor somewhere in the body
  • antibiotics or antifungal medicine – used if encephalitis is caused by a bacterial or fungal infection

If there’s no treatment for the underlying cause, treatment is given to support the body, relieve symptoms, and allow the best chance of recovery.

Supportive care

Encephalitis puts a lot of strain on the body and can cause a range of unpleasant symptoms.

Most children need treatment to relieve these symptoms and to support certain bodily functions until they’re feeling better.

This may involve:

  • fluids given into a vein to prevent dehydration
  • painkillers to reduce discomfort or a high temperature
  • medicine to control seizures or fits
  • medicine to help the person relax if they’re very agitated
  • oxygen given through a face mask to support the lungs – sometimes a machine called a ventilator may be used to control breathing
  • medicine to prevent a build-up of pressure inside the skull

Occasionally, surgery to remove a small piece of the skull may be needed if the pressure inside increases and medicine is not helping.

Follow-up therapy

If you experience complications of encephalitis, you might need additional therapy, such as:

  • Physical therapy to improve strength, flexibility, balance, motor coordination and mobility
  • Occupational therapy to develop everyday skills and to use adaptive products that help with everyday activities
  • Speech therapy to relearn muscle control and coordination to produce speech
  • Psychotherapy to learn coping strategies and new behavioral skills to improve mood disorders or address personality changes

Encephalitis in children prognosis

Encephalitis is a serious condition and, although some children will make a good recovery, it can cause persistent problems and can be fatal.

For example, encephalitis due to the herpes simplex virus (the most common type of encephalitis) is fatal in 1 in 5 cases even if treated, and causes persistent problems in around half the children who have it.

The chances of successful treatment are much better if encephalitis is diagnosed and treated quickly.

Some children eventually make a full recovery from encephalitis, although this can be a long and frustrating process.

Some children never make a full recovery and are left with long-term problems caused by damage to their brain.

Common complications include:

  • memory loss
  • frequent seizures or fits
  • personality and behavioral changes
  • problems with attention, concentration, planning and problem solving
  • persistent tiredness

These problems can have a significant impact on the life of the affected person, as well as their family and friends.

But help and support is available.

Support and rehabilitation

Recovering from encephalitis can be a long, slow and difficult process. Many children will never make a full recovery.

Specialized services are available to aid recovery and help the person adapt to any persistent problems – this is known as rehabilitation.

This may involve support from:

  • a neuropsychologist – a specialist in brain injuries and rehabilitation
  • an occupational therapist – who can identify problem areas in the person’s everyday life and work out practical solutions
  • a physiotherapist – who can help with movement problems
  • a speech and language therapist – who can help with communication

Before leaving hospital, the health and care needs of the affected person will be assessed and an individual care plan drawn up to meet those needs.

This should involve a discussion with the affected person and anyone likely to be involved in their care, such as close family members.

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