Understanding Encephalitis -- Diagnosis and Treatment

Medically Reviewed by Sabrina Felson, MD on May 12, 2021

How Is Encephalitis Diagnosed?

Many clues as to the cause of encephalitis come from an exposure history. Because a person with encephalitis is usually disoriented, family and friends are essential to getting a good history. It is important to know if the patient may have been exposed to mosquitoes or ticks, infected animals, or sick folks. 

Your doctor may also order a magnetic resonance imaging (MRI) scan, spinal tap, or an electroencephalogram (EEG).

Blood tests to check for the presence of bacteria or viruses and immune cells produced in response to them can also be helpful.

Rarely, an analysis of a brain tissue sample (biopsy) may be necessary to confirm the diagnosis in cases where symptoms are worsening and treatments aren't working. It can be very important to identify the type of encephalitis so that appropriate treatment can be given.


What Are the Treatments for Encephalitis?

Because complications from encephalitis can be serious, the condition requires hospitalization. Treatment will depend largely on your age and condition, as well as the form and cause of the disease. If encephalitis is caused by a bacterial infection, it can be treated with intravenous antibiotics. Treatment for herpes-related encephalitis includes supportive care, as well as intravenous antiviral therapy with a drug such as acyclovir. Other treatments may be used to lower fever, provide hydration, treat seizures if they develop, and reduce any pressure in the skull.

With proper care, most people recover from encephalitis. Infants and elderly people are at greater risk of sustaining permanent brain damage.