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Encephalitis is a condition that occurs when there is inflammation in the brain or spinal cord. It is most often caused by an infection from a parasite or virus. If you suspect that your child has encephalitis, contact the doctor right away. It is a serious condition that can be life threatening. Treatment can decrease your child’s chances of long-term complications and help with recovery.
Infections, such as those that cause the stomach flu, chickenpox, or the herpes simplex virus, can sometimes lead to encephalitis. In rare cases, encephalitis can also occur in children who have caught certain infections from an insect or animal bite or scratch.
In mild cases, symptoms may appear similar to the flu. These include:
In moderate to severe cases, symptoms may include:
Convulsions or seizures
Sensitivity to light
Nausea or vomiting
Your child will likely see a pediatric neurologist for diagnosis and treatment. This is a doctor who specializes in neurologic problems. The doctor examines your child. He or she also asks about your child’s health history and symptoms. The following may also be done:
Spinal tap (also called a lumbar puncture) to check the health of the fluid around the brain and spinal cord. This fluid is called cerebrospinal fluid. During the test, the low back is numbed. Then a needle is inserted into the spinal canal and a sample of the fluid is taken. The fluid is checked in a lab for signs of infection. The pressure of the fluid can also be measured.
MRI or CT scan to provide detailed pictures of the brain and check for swelling. Both tests are painless. Fluid called contrast dye may be used to make the brain easier to see. Medication can be given to help your child stay calm and lie still during the tests.
Blood tests to check for the presence of specific viruses or parasites.
Hospital care is needed for encephalitis. Treatment consists of fluids and medications delivered through an IV (intravenous) line. Your child is monitored in the hospital until symptoms improve. Overall treatment time will vary for each child. The doctor will speak with you about other forms of treatment if they are needed.
Children can recover completely. But in some cases, children may have ongoing neurologic problems such as trouble with learning, reasoning, speech, or movement. Regular follow-up with the doctor may be recommended depending on your child’s condition. Supportive care, such as speech, physical, or occupational therapy, may be prescribed to help your child.