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Viral Illnesses

Encephalitis means "inflammation (irritation and swelling) of the brain," but it usually refers to brain inflammation caused by a virus. This severe and potentially life-threatening disease is rare.

Screening and diagnosis

Diagnosing encephalitis may involve:

  • Spinal tap (lumbar puncture). The most common way to diagnose encephalitis is to analyze the cerebrospinal fluid surrounding your brain and spinal cord. A needle inserted into your lower spine extracts a sample of fluid for laboratory analysis, which may reveal the presence of an infection or an increased white blood count — a signal that your immune system is fighting an infection. Your cerebrospinal fluid may also be slightly bloody if hemorrhages have occurred. Diagnosis of herpes simplex encephalitis can be difficult, but advances using sensitive DNA methods have allowed detection of the virus in your spinal fluid.

  • Electroencephalography (EEG). This procedure, which takes about a half-hour, measures the waves of electrical activity produced by your brain. It's often used to diagnose and manage seizure disorders. A number of small electrodes are attached to your scalp with paste or an elastic cap as you recline. You remain still during the test, but at times you may be asked to breathe deeply and steadily for several minutes or to stare at a patterned board. At times, a light may be flashed in your eyes. These actions are meant to stimulate your brain. The electrodes pick up the electrical impulses from your brain and send them to the EEG machine, which records your brain waves on a moving sheet of paper. An abnormal EEG result may suggest encephalitis, but a normal result does not rule out the disease.

  • Brain imaging. A computerized tomography (CT) or magnetic resonance imaging (MRI) scan may reveal swelling of your brain. Or it may reveal another condition with signs and symptoms that are similar to encephalitis, such as a concussion.

  • Brain biopsy. Rarely, if diagnosis of herpes simplex encephalitis isn't possible using DNA methods or by CT or MRI scans, your doctor may take a small sample of your brain tissue. This sample is analyzed in the laboratory to see if the virus is present. Your doctor may try treatment with antiviral medications before suggesting brain biopsy.

  • Blood testing. Your doctor can confirm the presence of West Nile virus in your body by drawing a sample of your blood for laboratory analysis. If you have West Nile virus, an analysis of your blood sample may show a rising level of an antibody to the virus, a positive DNA test for the virus or a positive culture of the virus.

Encephalitis > 1 > 2 > 3 > 4


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Last Modified : 03/15/08 12:28 AM