Encephalitis needs to be treated urgently. Treatment involves tackling the underlying cause, relieving symptoms and supporting bodily functions.
It's treated in hospital – usually in an intensive care unit (ICU), which is for people who are very ill and need extra care.
How long someone with encephalitis needs to stay in hospital can range from a few days to several weeks or even months.
Treating the cause
If a cause of encephalitis is found, treatment will start straight away.
Possible treatments include:
- antiviral medicine – used if encephalitis is caused by the herpes simplex or chickenpox viruses; it's usually given into a vein three times a day for 2 to 3 weeks
- steroid injections – used if encephalitis is caused by a problem with the immune system and sometimes in cases linked to the chickenpox virus; treatment is usually for a few days
- immunoglobulin therapy – medicine that helps control the immune system
- plasmapheresis – a procedure which removes the substances that are attacking the brain from the blood
- surgery to remove abnormal growths (tumours) – if encephalitis was triggered by a tumour somewhere in the body
- antibiotics or antifungal medicine – used if encephalitis is caused by a bacterial or fungal infection
If there's no treatment for the underlying cause, treatment is given to support the body, relieve symptoms, and allow the best chance of recovery.
Encephalitis puts a lot of strain on the body and can cause a range of unpleasant symptoms.
Most people need treatment to relieve these symptoms and to support certain bodily functions until they're feeling better.
This may involve:
- fluids given into a vein to prevent dehydration
- painkillers to reduce discomfort or a high temperature
- medicine to control seizures or fits
- medicine to help the person relax if they're very agitated
- oxygen given through a face mask to support the lungs – sometimes a machine called a ventilator may be used to control breathing
- medicine to prevent a build-up of pressure inside the skull
Occasionally, surgery to remove a small piece of the skull may be needed if the pressure inside increases and medicine is not helping.