Encephalitis | Diagnosis & Treatment

How is encephalitis diagnosed?

The first step in treating your child is forming an accurate diagnosis. Your doctor will take a complete medical history of your child, including immunization history, and ask whether they has been involved in any activities or been anywhere where they may have been exposed to viruses known to cause encephalitis. Your child’s doctor may also ask if your child has recently:

  • had a cold or other respiratory illness, or a gastrointestinal illness
  • had a tick bite
  • been around pets or other animals
  • traveled to certain areas of the country or outside of the country

This information can provide clues as to what might be causing your child’s symptoms. Some of the procedures we use to diagnose encephalitis include:

In extremely rare cases, your doctor may recommend taking a sample of your child’s inflamed brain tissue through a small biopsy. The sample will be studied under the microscope by a pathologist to see whether the underlying cause can be found and this may help guide treatment decisions for your child.

What are the treatment options for encephalitis?

The key to treating encephalitis is early detection and treatment. Most children who are diagnosed with encephalitis are hospitalized for two weeks to a month, and sometimes children with severe cases spend time in the intensive care unit (ICU).

The first step in caring for your child is to stabilize their medical condition and try to figure out what caused the condition. Your child's doctor may order a lumbar puncture to look for evidence of bacteria and viruses.

While your child's team is working to determine the cause of the encephalitis, they'll be treated for two to three days with intravenous (through an IV) medications to fight certain bacteria and the herpes simplex virus, while awaiting lab results, as a precautionary measure.

If your child's encephalitis has an auto-immune cause, your doctor will talk with you about treating them with a course of immunosuppressants (these may include high-dose steroids, intravenous antibodies, or plasmapheresis, a process that filters your child's blood). While most children with this type of encephalitis only need a single course of immunosuppressants, some children may need to stay on them for a longer period of time.

Unfortunately, there often isn't a cause that can be pinpointed and treated. In these cases, we focus on preventing related complications, often through medication, while your child's brain recovers from the inflammation.