Viral Encephalitis

by Kevin Pederson

Encephalitis is a term used to describe an inflammation of the brain. Amongst the causes of encephalitis, viral infections are common. Viral encephalitis can be caused by many different types of virus, the most common of which are the herpes virus, measles virus and viruses transmitted by mosquito bites.

Viral encephalitis can be classified into two types, primary and secondary. Primary encephalitis is caused by a virus that infects the brain and the spinal cord. Secondary encephalitis occurs when the viral infection from another part spreads to the brain. Very often, encephalitis occurs along with meningitis, another type of brain infection.

While viral encephalitis usually subsides in a few days, in some cases it can prove to be severe and even fatal. The incidence of viral encephalitis in the United States is estimated to be approximately 10,000 to 20,000 annually.

The symptoms of encephalitis include:

  • Fever
  • Sore throat
  • Weakness
  • Disorientation
  • Loss of consciousness
  • Seizures
  • Delusions
  • Hallucinations
  • Agitation
  • Personality changes

In case the encephalitis is accompanied by meningitis, symptoms may also include:

  • Headache
  • Stiff neck
  • Nausea and vomiting
  • Intolerance to bright light

There may be other symptoms present as well - depending on the area of the brain affected. Some of these include:

  • Difficulty in speaking
  • Difficulty in understanding words
  • Involuntary muscle movements such as tremors
  • Loss of coordination
  • Weakness or partial paralysis

The viruses that most commonly cause encephalitis include:

  • Aboviruses - These are viruses carried by insects and can cause Eastern equine encephalitis, Western equine encephalitis, La Crosse encephalitis, St. Louis encephalitis and West Nile encephalitis.
  • Herpes simplex viruses - Both HSV-1 which causes cold sore and HSV-2 which causes genital herpes can cause encephalitis.
  • Varicella zoster virus, the cause of chicken pox and shingles
  • Epstein-Barr virus - the cause of mononucleosis
  • Childhood viruses that cause measles, rubella and mumps.

There are certain factors that increase the risk of developing viral encephalitis. These include:

  • Newborns and the elderly are susceptible
  • Exposure to mosquitos
  • Having a weak immune system
  • No immunity against childhood diseases
  • Travelling to places where this condition is endemic

Encephalitis is a condition that needs to be taken seriously. You should consult your doctor immediately should either you or your child exhibit any of the symptoms. Your doctor will make a diagnosis of viral encephalitis using certain blood tests, tests on spinal fluid, imaging techniques and/or electroencephalograph (EEG).

While there are no specific medications available for the treatment of viral encephalitis, certain anti-viral medications such as acyclovir (Zovirax) may help in cases where the encephalitis is caused by the herpes simplex or the varicella-zoster viruses. Other medications may be prescribed to treat symptoms such as anticonvulsants to prevent or treat seizures.

Other treatment approaches including home care that may help include:

  • Acupuncture - Studies have shown that scalp acupuncture when used in conjunction with the appropriate medication may help clear up the viral infection. However, more research is required to prove its efficacy.
  • Diet - Proper nutrition can go a long way in strengthening the body’s immune system. Eat plenty of fresh fruits and vegetables. Avoid refined foods such as white breads, pasta and sugar.
  • Rest - Avoid exertion and stay confined to the bed for as long as possible
  • Fluids - Drink plenty of fluids and keep well hydrated.
  • Supplements - However, supplements of vitamin C, omega-3 acids and zinc may be taken to boost the body’s immune system. Echinacea supplements may also be taken for the same purpose.
  • Herbal extracts - Herbs that may boost the body’s immune system and reduce symptoms include green tea, cat’s claw, garlic, elderberry and astragalus.
  • Things to avoid - Avoid smoking, drinking alcohol, coffee and caffeinated beverages.

Consult your doctor before trying any of the other recommended measures.


Warning: The reader of this article should exercise all precautionary measures while following instructions on the home remedies from this article. Avoid using any of these products if you are allergic to it. The responsibility lies with the reader and not with the site or the writer.
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