What is encephalitis?

Encephalitis simply means that the brain tissues have become inflamed. When brain tissues are inflamed, they don’t work properly, which is why your child may experience seizures, mental confusion or changes in behavior.

Infection or inflammation in the brain can lead to permanent damage. Unfortunately, there’s no way to predict the long-term effects of encephalitis. Some children have lots of serious symptoms but respond very well to treatment; others have milder cases but have epilepsy and more long-term learning issues.

Why is encephalitis hard to diagnose?

Encephalitis can be hard to diagnose because it’s a reaction to something, in the same way that a bruise is a reaction to an injury. Often, we may find a bruise and not know what caused it; the same is true for encephalitis.

Another reason is that the absolute best way to determine what causes encephalitis is a brain biopsy. But since this is an extremely invasive procedure, it’s usually only used in very severe cases. Instead, we do other tests, such as a spinal tap, which may or may not pick up on a virus in a brain cell.

Can encephalitis be prevented?

Some forms of encephalitis are transmitted through mosquito bites, and we can prevent those forms by preventing mosquito bites. You and your child can help protect yourselves from mosquito bites by:

  • wearing long sleeves, long pants and socks when outside
  • using bug spray
  • wearing light-colored clothing (mosquitoes are attracted to darker colors)
  • avoiding areas of standing water, like ponds, wells and birdbaths (this is where mosquitos lay their eggs)

There’s a lot of information on the Internet about encephalitis—much of it misleading. People often hear "encephalitis" and think virus—particularly West Nile virus. But encephalitis (inflammation of the brain) actually has a wide range of causes, levels of severity, treatment options and outcomes.

Encephalitis is a rare neurological condition that often comes on suddenly. Encephalitis means that brain tissues have become inflamed. When brain tissues are inflamed it can cause your child to have seizures, mental confusion or changes in behavior.

  • Cases of encephalitis can range from mild to severe, with a range of physical, behavioral and neurological outcomes.
  • It may take several months for the full effects of a child’s encephalitis to become clear.
  • Some children respond very well to treatment; others have epilepsy and long-term school or learning issues.
  • Although encephalitis can be life-threatening in its most severe form, this is rare.
  • Physical, speech, and occupational therapy can be very helpful in helping your child recover from encephalitis.

How we care for encephalitis

Boston Children’s Pediatric Neuro-immunology Program is dedicated to the comprehensive care of children, adolescents and families who are affected by encephalitis. Our team includes pediatric neurologists and neuropsychologists, and we consult with pediatric specialists in rheumatology, infectious diseases and epilepsy when it’s beneficial.

Here, your child benefits from the expertise of a main referral center for pediatric encephalitis in New England. We also have strong ties to the small network of physicians and researchers all over the country who are working to better understand, diagnose and treat this extremely rare condition.

Our program is part of the Department of Neurology at Boston Children's, the oldest and largest program in pediatric neurology in the world.