Encephalitis in Children – Causes, Symptoms & Treatment
Babies and young children are susceptible to a lot of health conditions as their immune systems are still developing. Some of these conditions get better with time, but a few other health conditions may turn severe that need immediate medical attention. Encephalitis is one such medical condition that requires prompt medical help.
What is Encephalitis?
Viral infections lead to high fever and inflammation in the spinal and brain tissues. This condition is called encephalitis. Meningitis or inflammation of the membranes covering the brain and spine can also occur. Both these conditions are very serious and life-threatening and require immediate admission to a hospital with good intensive-care facilities. Any delays can even lead to death or permanent damage to the nervous system.
What Causes Encephalitis in Kids?
Some of the causes of encephalitis in kids are:
- Viruses are the main cause of encephalitis. But immunization and vaccinations against rubella, measles, mumps, and chickenpox lower the risk of these illnesses leading to encephalitis.
- Infections from Lyme’s disease, rabies, and West Nile illness, etc., normally spread through mosquito bites, tick, animal and insect bites. Herpes Simplex virus causes cold sores and its leading to encephalitis is quite rare. Chickenpox and many other sicknesses can be contracted during a cough or sneeze through bodily fluids and can lead to mild encephalitis during recovery.
- Some viruses can cause diarrhoea, nausea, upper respiratory infection, and vomiting that may lead to complications like encephalitis.
- Children with Syphilis, Lyme disease, tuberculosis, parasitic toxoplasmosis, etc., are susceptible to encephalitis.
- Autoimmune reactions attacking the brain tissues can cause encephalitis in some cases.
What Are the Symptoms of Encephalitis in a Child?
Encephalitis symptoms in babies are hard to detect. Red flags in babies up to 3 months are:
- Fever higher than 100.4°F
- Incessant crying, skin rash
- Bulging or fullness in the soft spot atop the head
- Rigidity, flopping action
- Reduced feeding, vomiting
- Lethargy, coma
Not to be ignored symptoms in slightly older children are:
- Stiff neck and severe headache
- Double vision and intolerance to light
- Unsteady walking with convulsions, confusion
- Rigidity in arm or leg movements
- Loss of sensation
- Personality changes, memory loss
- Loss of consciousness, lethargy or hallucinations
How Is Encephalitis Diagnosed?
These tests are used by doctors to confirm a diagnosis of encephalitis.
- Immunization records are very important in diagnosis. The activity of the child should also be communicated to know the probable causes of the fever. For example, if your child was playing with a pet, in a garden where a tick or insect bite is possible, or if the child is recovering from measles, mumps etc, you must tell the same to your child’s doctor.
- Blood tests are conducted to check the immunity levels, signs of infections, and to include a test for antibodies like the NMDA receptor antibody.
- Urine and stools tests are used to detect the infections excreted by the body.
- Sputum culture looks for lung infections by studying the mucus coughed up.
- Magnetic Resonance Imaging (MRI) is a painless, non-invasive test where the images of the organs like the spine and brain are studied for inflammation.
- CT scan is also a painless, non-invasive test that uses computerized-tomography images and can study the internal organs in slices or sections for inflammation and infections.
- Electroencephalogram (EEG) studies the activity of the brain to stimuli and is again a non-invasive and painless test to detect encephalitis.
- In lumbar puncture studies, the fluid is withdrawn from the spine through a syringe inserted between the spinal discs and into the spinal canal, for infections in the spine and the brain. This test can be very painful.
- Biopsy of the brain uses a brain tissue sample. Being an invasive and painful test it is rarely conducted and resorted to only when needed.
Possible Complications of Encephalitis
The evolving and agile central nervous system of children normally allows full recovery of the child in mild cases of encephalitis. In more severe cases the possibility of nervous system damage like trouble with walking, thinking, speech or movement may persist and require physiotherapy and regular follow-up visits.
How is Encephalitis Treated in Children?
Encephalitis can be fatal and requires immediate hospitalization and treatment which depends on the symptoms, diagnosis, age, general health conditions, and severity of the illness. Constant monitoring of the heart rate, breathing, blood pressure and body fluids is essential to prevent further inflammation.
- If lung infections are present, the child may be placed on a ventilator to help him breathe.
- Treatment will tackle and reduce the inflammation in the spine and brain causing seizures and involves the administration of anti-inflammatory, antiviral, anti-convulsion drugs including corticosteroids, acetaminophen, etc., that are either in tablet form or injectable.
- Once the child recovers the symptoms of difficulty in talking, speaking, etc., are tackled with physiotherapy, speech therapy, occupational therapy, etc. Regular checkups, further evaluation tests, and continued treatment are essential to aid complete recovery.
- Home care treatment and exercise with activities conducive to recovery play a vital role in full recovery.
- Educate yourself on the pros and cons of the various treatments available and provide mental and emotional support to the child. This is often the most effective treatment that allows the child to adapt to changed circumstances and aids recovery.
- Children below the age of 1 year and adults older than 55 years are susceptible to greater risks and more severe symptoms. Severe cases of Japanese encephalitis and such virus attacks can be fatal.
Measures You Can Take to Prevent Encephalitis
Encephalitis cannot be prevented, but you can tackle and avoid the causes leading to it.
- Firstly immunization can prevent many sicknesses in children.
- Prevention is better than a cure and avoiding contact with a patient diagnosed with encephalitis is highly recommended.
- In areas prone to mosquitoes, using nets, insect repellents, and wearing full arm clothing with full pants is recommended especially at dusk and dawn when the insects are active. Prevent water stagnation to avoid their breeding.
- Tick and insect bites can be prevented by checking your pets, limiting your child’s contact with soil and vegetation and ensuring full arm tops and long pants in light colours when outdoors.
- Educating yourself, following immunization schedules, keeping clear medical records, emergency contact numbers and talking over tests, results and what to expect with your doctor can go a long way in helping your child.
When to Consult a Doctor
See your doctor immediately if your child is recovering from a sickness like
- High fever
- Any symptoms that persist for too long
1. Is Encephalitis a Contagious Disease?
Encephalitis or the inflammation in the brain is not contagious. However, the many viruses causing encephalitis can be. Not all cases of the viral attack lead to encephalitis. But viruses being easy to catch and infective it is best to avoid contact with encephalitis patients as a matter of abundant caution.
2. How Long Does Encephalitis Last?
The acute phase of encephalitis in infants when the symptoms are most severe generally lasts for a week. Full recovery from encephalitis can take many weeks and months and sometimes close to a year depending on the severity of the case.
Encephalitis can be fatal if not brought to medical attention in due time. Hence, it is important that you look out for symptoms and take prompt action.