What Is Encephalitis? Symptoms, Causes, And Treatments

Our brain is a heavily guarded organ. To begin with, it is completely enclosed by the cranium, better known as the skull. Inside it are 3 layers of meninges tissue to absorb any form of shock. The cerebrospinal fluid soaks the brain giving it another layer of cushion and removing waste products.

What Is Encephalitis?

Then, there is the blood-brain barrier, which selectively allows substances from the bloodstream to enter the brain. That’s neat. And, all this fuss is for good reason too.

What Is Encephalitis

One, it’s a vital organ. But so are the heart and the liver. The brain lacks regeneration capacity. Once some tissue is damaged, it’s gone. 

With this level of protection in place, it is understandable if you think that the brain is immune to infections. Unfortunately, the brain can develop inflammations. And doctors call it Encephalitis.

What Are The Symptoms Of Encephalitis?

Encephalitis is not your ordinary straight-talking disease. It affects each individual differently. The symptoms can vary depending on the area affected. In the case of autoimmune encephalitis (explained shortly), the symptoms can also vary depending on the antibody involved. They can manifest physically or cognitively. 

Physical symptoms can include fever, seizures, headaches, light or sound sensitivity, and stiff neck. At a late stage, the patient may experience partial paralysis of limbs, double vision, speech or vision impairment, and coma.

Cognitive symptoms can include excessive sleepiness, confusion or disorientation, irritability, anxiety, hallucination, psychosis, memory loss, sudden behavioural changes, deja vu and cognitive impairment. 

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What Are The Causes Of Encephalitis?

Inflammation in the brain can be due to several causes. The medical community calls it by different names. When the cause is an infection, it is called infectious encephalitis. If the culprit is your own immune system attacking your brain, it’s called autoimmune encephalitis

Herpes simplex virus type 1 and type 2, varicella zoster, and enteroviruses lead the pack of pathogens that causes infectious encephalitis. Other infectious microbes like bacteria or fungi also rarely cause this condition. 

Our immune system normally protects our body from foreign invaders, like disease-causing bacteria and viruses. But sometimes the system malfunctions and starts targeting our own organs. The several ways this is expressed, are called auto-immune diseases.

The exact cause of the same is not known yet. Autoimmune encephalitis is the result when a person’s antibodies or any other immunity mechanism attacking the brain. The antibodies may target a specific protein or receptor in the brain.

And the name of that protein or receptor is added to the name of the disease. For example, in anti-NMDA receptor encephalitis, the antibodies attack the NMDA receptors. 

Diagnosing Encephalitis

Early detection is good for any disease. In the case of encephalitis, it is literally a matter of life and death. Encephalitis can be diagnosed with regular scans like an MRI or a CT, and blood or sputum tests.

Monitoring electrical activity in the brain with the help of a few simple electrodes can detect seizures in the affected areas. The process is called EEG. Spinal fluid collected from the lower back can identify infections in the brain or spinal cord.

It has a fancy name too. Lumbar puncture. In rare cases, doctors look at the affected brain tissue through a microscope. They call it a biopsy. 

Prevention Of Encephalitis

“Prevention is better than cure” is probably the oldest adage in pathology. Maybe in medicine itself. Practise good personal hygiene. If you are going for a hike, make sure you use mosquito repellent. Studies suggest that stress contributes to autoimmune disorders.

The evidence is inconclusive but there’s nothing to lose practising a stress-free lifestyle. Also, avoid polluted environments. It can trigger infections in people who are predisposed to pathological conditions.

Treatment Options

Treatments for encephalitis vary based on cause and symptoms. If it is a viral infection, antiviral medication is administered. Similarly, antibiotics are prescribed for a bacterial infection.

Autoimmune encephalitis is addressed with immunotherapy treatments. Like administering steroids or intravenous antibodies and plasma exchange. 

Medications can control the accompanying seizures. If the disease has progressed too far, the patient may lose consciousness.

Assistance devices like a feeding tube would be necessary in such cases. Studies have shown that encephalitis patients with seizures can benefit from eating a high-fat low carbohydrate diet. 

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About the Author

Nicole Carter is a dedicated and passionate nutritionist, committed to helping individuals achieve their health and wellness goals through the power of proper nutrition. With a Bachelor's degree in Nutritional Science and years of practical experience.

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