Herpes simplex encephalitis, as the name suggests, is a medical condition that is triggered by the herpes simplex virus. Mostly it affects children and adolescents. Know all about this condition through an elaborate explanation given in this article.
Before we come to herpes simplex encephalitis, we shall go through a brief introduction on encephalitis. It is a medical condition of the central nervous system, marked by the inflammation of the brain tissue. Although a rare condition, encephalitis is a severe threat to the affected person’s life. As determined by medical experts, the condition is either caused by an infection (typically a viral one), or results as a complication of certain autoimmune conditions. Speaking about infections, the herpes simplex virus, the same pathogen that causes cold sores (HSV 1) and genital virus (HSV 2), is known to cause encephalitis in children and adults.
How Does HSV Cause Encephalitis?
Pathogens such as HSV 1 or HSV 2 infects the brain through the bloodstream or with the help of the nerve pathways. The brain has a protective covering around it; a thick membrane. This sheath keeps the organ from getting invaded by foreign substances including viruses or bacteria. This sheath, known as the blood-brain barrier, cannot be easily bypassed by pathogens or other foreign substances. And that is why diseases such as encephalitis and other infections of the brain are rare. However, this is not the same in all cases.
In some people, the pathogens overwhelm the blood-brain barrier thus, making their way into the brain tissues. And once this happens, the brain cells deteriorate, causing the affected person to lose his/her normal brain function, and experience a variety of unpleasant symptoms and complications. Besides the HSV 1 and 2 viruses, there are other herpes viruses that may also trigger the infection thus, inflammation of the brain. These may include the Epstein-Barr virus and the varicella-zoster virus.
The former one, typically causes mononucleosis, while the latter, is responsible for causing chickenpox, and shingles. Now all these viruses may either, directly infect the brain tissues, or they may get reactivated after a period of dormancy before causing the infection. To add to this, adults and children older than 3 months are usually diagnosed to be infected by the HSV 1, while in neonates, HSV 2 is the culprit.
Characteristic Symptoms of Herpes Simplex Encephalitis
Not all cases of herpes simplex encephalitis in children manifest themselves with signs or symptoms. And those which do, trigger flu-like symptoms of a mild degree. That is why it becomes difficult to identify if the real problem is flu or encephalitis. Early symptoms that may surface, include headache, low-grade fever, aches in muscles and joints, and weakness. These symptoms are common in children and adults.
But some symptoms which may be specific to infants and young children may include:
- The child’s body may be felt to have become stiff, without any apparent reason
- A child with encephalitis may develop a bulge in his/her fontanel (soft spots on a baby’s head)
- Diseases such as this one causes infants and young children to cry constantly, and inconsolably. So apart from showing the above symptoms, if the child’s crying worsens when he/she is picked up, then this could also indicate encephalitis that is caused by HSV.
- Loss of appetite is another common symptom.
If the infection is a mild one, then it is most likely that the patient will recover within a few weeks, and without any long-term complications. However, if the infection is so severe that the inflammation caused by it has injured the brain, then severe repercussions such as respiratory arrest, coma and even death may occur. Speaking of complications that may be long-lasting may include memory problems, epilepsy, frequent mood swings, weakness, impaired intellectuality, paralysis, vision and hearing problems, speech disorders, and a sense of feeling different.
To reduce and manage the inflammation, herpes simplex encephalitis in children or adults is treated with anti-inflammatory drugs. Also simple self-care measures such as taking plenty of rest, and increasing fluid intake are good enough to reduce the symptoms of a mild case of the condition. In case, the doctor diagnoses the child with a severe infection, then it is most likely that antiviral drugs would be prescribed. Depending on the condition of the patient, and how severe is the infection, the patient might also be put in breathing assistance, IV (intravenous ) fluids, anti-inflammatory drugs, and medications for avoiding convulsions. But since children are in concern, it is strictly recommended to administer any medication under the supervision of a medical expert.
The best way to counter herpes simplex encephalitis is to keep it from developing in the first place. And all what needs to be done is teaching your children the importance of good personal hygiene such as keeping their hands clean, and not sharing utensils. Also getting your child vaccinated as required and as recommended, is an important preventive measure against such infections.