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.
This depends on how well treatment works and if any complications of encephalitis occur.
Treating the cause
If a cause of encephalitis is found, treatment to deal with this will start immediately.
Possible treatments include:
- antiviral medication – used if encephalitis is caused by the herpes simplex or chickenpox viruses; it's usually given into a vein three times a day for two to three 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 – medication that helps control the immune system, which may be needed if steroids don't help
- plasmapheresis – a procedure which removes the substances that are attacking the brain from the blood, which may be needed if immunoglobulin therapy doesn't help
- surgery to remove abnormal growths (tumours) – done if encephalitis was triggered by a tumour somewhere in the body
- antibiotics or antifungal medication – used if encephalitis is caused by a bacterial or antifungal 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 (see below).
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 fever
- medication to control seizures (fits)
- medication 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
- medication 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 medication isn't helping.