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Doctor Decoded: What Is Encephalitis?

Find out what encephalitis is, including the symptoms, risk factors, and threats to health.

Lauren Smith, MAMera Goodman, MD, FAAP
Written by Lauren Smith, MA | Reviewed by Mera Goodman, MD, FAAP
Published on June 29, 2021

When you look up the potential risks of infections like West Nile or measles, you’ll often see encephalitis. It’s not a word you see or hear often, yet it’s a serious and sometimes life-threatening issue. So what is it?

What Is Encephalitis?

Encephalitis refers to inflammation and swelling of the brain. Basically, encephal- comes from the Greek word for “brain,” and the suffix -itis always refers to inflammation. Usually, it's a complication of a viral or bacterial infection. This includes:

  • Measles

  • Herpes Simplex types 1 and 2

  • West Nile

Symptoms of encephalitis can vary depending on how severe it is. In mild cases, it may just cause flu-like symptoms. However, in more severe cases, you may have symptoms like:

  • Intense headache

  • Fever

  • Drowsiness

  • Vomiting

  • Changes in personality

  • Confusion

  • Convulsions or seizures

In infants, symptoms may appear a little different. Parents may notice that their baby won’t stop crying, isn’t eating, feels stiff, and has bulging in their skull.

Why It’s Dangerous

As you can imagine, swelling and inflammation of the brain is nothing to take lightly. The symptoms listed above require immediate medical care. Untreated, severe encephalitis can cause lasting brain damage. In some cases, it can even be fatal.

In general, early treatment can control the inflammation and reduce the damage. Sometimes, doctors can use medicines to treat the underlying infection. However, not all viruses are treatable with medications. Plus, some medicines can help treat specific symptoms. For example, there are medicines to treat seizures or reduce swelling.

Preventing encephalitis is the same as preventing the underlying infections. In general, that includes habits like washing your hands regularly, not sharing food or utensils with someone who is sick, getting vaccinated when available (like the measles vaccine), and protecting yourself against bug bites.

GoodRx Health has strict sourcing policies and relies on primary sources such as medical organizations, governmental agencies, academic institutions, and peer-reviewed scientific journals. Learn more about how we ensure our content is accurate, thorough, and unbiased by reading our editorial guidelines.

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