Encephalitis is an inflammation of the brain cells. The common cause is viral infection. In some cases, the virus spreads to the nervous system from infections such as mumps, measles or infectious mononucleosis. However, in some cases, encephalitis is the only consequence of infection. There are still several types of non-viral infections, for example, the African sleeping disorder that is a unilateral organism transmitted by Tsetse fly, but such diseases are virtually unknown in Europe.
The degree of severity of encephalitis may vary greatly. In mild cases, the symptoms are similar to the symptoms of each viral infection – elevated temperature, headache, and loss of energy and appetite. In severe cases the brain function is more clearly affected, with irritability, restlessness, drowsiness, and perhaps photophobia. In the toughest cases, symptoms can be double vision, worsedned speech and hearing, losing of muscle strength in the hands and feet and, ultimately, coma.
The mild form of encephalitis is quite common. However, symptoms are often wrongly attributed to mild influenza or can not be distinguished from the symptoms of another disease, so many people are not even aware that they have encephalitis. Measles cause mild encephalitis in about 1 case out of 1000. The severe forms of this disease are very rare.
Much depends on the age of the patient and on the microorganism – the cause of the disease. In infants and older people encephalitis may be deadly, but people in other age groups are often fully recovered, even after severe and longer illness. Despite the danger of permanent brain damage, serious consequences only occur in a small number of cases.
What to do?
If you notice any of the symptoms of encephalitis, especially if you have recently had a viral infection such as a measles, contact your doctor who will probably ask for diagnostic tests – blood, X-ray and Electroencephalogram (EEG).
Since viruses usually do not respond to antibiotics, the treatment is basically focused on relieving symptoms and enabling the body’s natural defense system to overcome the infection. In most cases it means nursing and good nutrition. Sometimes corticosteroid drugs can help to suppress inflammation. In severe cases, a patient is fed with a nasogastric probe, and breathing may need to be supported by a respirator. Recovery after a severe form of disease may be slow, and sometimes the physiotherapist’s need is needed to re-teach basic skills such as clear speech or the ability to use jaw and knife. In such cases, which are rare, you may be dependent on medical and family help for up to one year.