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Encephalitis is an inflammation of the brain. Most often, it is caused by one of several different viruses. The most common are the herpes viruses, childhood viruses such as measles, and viruses you get through a mosquito bite.
There are two types of encephalitis -- primary and secondary. In primary encephalitis, a virus attacks the brain and spinal cord directly. In secondary or postinfectious encephalitis, the virus invades another part of your body and travels to your brain. The virus causes inflammation of the nerve cells (encephalitis) or the surrounding membranes (meningitis). Encephalitis is different from meningitis, but these two brain infections often happen together.
Most cases of encephalitis are mild and don't last long. However, in some cases encephalitis can be life threatening. About 10,000 - 20,000 cases of encephalitis are reported each year in the United States.
Signs and Symptoms
Arboviruses, or viruses carried by insects, are some of the most common causes of viral encephalitis. Some of the major arboviruses carried by mosquitoes include:
Other viruses that commonly cause viral encephalitis include:
Not all cases of encephalitis are caused by viruses. Some other causes of encephalitis include:
The following factors may increase your risk of becoming infected with viral encephalitis:
Encephalitis is a serious condition, so you should see a doctor if you or your child start having symptoms. You are usually diagnosed and treated in a hospital at first. After doing a physical exam, a doctor may take the following steps to diagnose the condition:
The best way to prevent encephalitis is to avoid getting viruses that cause it:
Viral encephalitis is a serious medical condition. Although there are no specific medications to treat it, people with symptoms are often given the antiviral medication acyclovir (Zovirax). It works against herpes simplex and varicella-zoster viruses.
Complementary and alternative therapies have not been studied very much for the treatment of encephalitis. But some studies indicate that scalp acupuncture, along with the right medication, may help the healing process.
Treatment includes careful observation and rest, proper nutrition, and fluids, to allow the body to fight the infection. You should always see your doctor if you have symptoms of encephalitis. Don't try to treat yourself.
Always tell your health care provider about the herbs and supplements you are using or considering using, as some supplements may interfere with other medicines.
Medications used to treat viral encephalitis include:
Nutrition and Dietary Supplements
There aren't any vitamins or supplements that relieve the symptoms of encephalitis. However, following these tips may help your overall health as you recover:
These supplements may also help improve your overall health:
Herbs may strengthen and tone the body's systems. As with any therapy, you should work with your health care provider to get your problem diagnosed before starting any treatment. You may use herbs as dried extracts (capsules, powders, teas), glycerites (glycerine extracts), or tinctures (alcohol extracts). Unless otherwise indicated, you should make teas with 1 tsp. herb per cup of hot water. Steep covered 5 - 10 minutes for leaf or flowers, and 10 - 20 minutes for roots. Drink 2 - 4 cups per day.
No herbs have been shown to help treat encephalitis. These herbs may help strengthen the immune system. Ask your doctor before taking them:
A study of a small number of people with complications from encephalitis suggests that acupuncture on the scalp may reduce severe complications and symptoms. Some practitioners believe that scalp acupuncture works for people with encephalitis because all meridians converge at the head, and the method can stimulate and regulate qi (energy) throughout the entire body. More research is needed.
Most cases of encephalitis in newborns are caused by when the baby passes through the birth canal of a mother who is infected with herpes simplex virus 2 (HSV-2). This infection in newborns is often severe and fatal. Pregnant women with a history of HSV-2 infection may be advised to have a cesarean section, even if there is no sign of an active infection.
Prognosis and Complications
Full recovery from encephalitis can take weeks or months. People recovering from serious cases may have complications ranging from fatigue and trouble concentrating to tremors and personality changes.
The most severe problems from encephalitis come from the destruction of nerve cells in the brain. How severe the complications are depends on the person's immune system -- whether it is healthy or weak -- and what infection caused the encephalitis. For example, many of those infected with Eastern equine encephalitis and St. Louis encephalitis have permanent brain damage, including problems with memory, speech, vision, hearing, muscle control, and sensation, and a low survival rate. Those infected with Epstein-Barr or varicella zoster rarely have any serious complications.
Most cases of encephalitis are mild and people make a full recovery.
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Review Date: 12/17/2012
Reviewed By: Steven D. Ehrlich, NMD, Solutions Acupuncture, a private practice specializing in complementary and alternative medicine, Phoenix, AZ. Review provided by VeriMed Healthcare Network.
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