Herpes Encephalitis

What is herpes encephalitis?

Herpes encephalitis is an infection of the brain and central nervous system caused by the herpes virus.

Herpes encephalitis can damage the brain and cause trouble walking, talking, and remembering. It can be life-threatening.

What is the cause?

Herpes encephalitis is caused by the same virus that causes cold sores (fever blisters). The herpes virus causes painful blisters on the skin that can last for several days. You may have sores around your mouth or in your genital or buttocks area. Once you are infected, the virus continues to live in your body, even after the first sores are gone.

In rare cases the virus spreads to the nerves and brain and causes herpes encephalitis. This usually happens only if you have a medical condition that lowers your ability to fight off infections—for example, you have diabetes or you take steroids.

The virus can be passed from a pregnant woman to her baby during birth. It can cause serious problems for the baby, sometimes even death. If a newborn is infected and survives the infection, the baby may have damage to the brain or other parts of the nervous system.

What are the symptoms?

At first, you may feel like you have the flu. You may have a headache, fever, and muscle aches. Over several hours or days the symptoms may get worse. More severe symptoms may include:

  • Confusion or memory problems
  • Hearing, seeing, smelling, or feeling things that others do not
  • Trouble thinking
  • Changes in behavior
  • Trouble talking or understanding speech
  • Not knowing who you are, where you are, or what day or year it is
  • Seizures
  • Coma

If you or someone else has these symptoms, call 911 for emergency help right away.

How is it diagnosed?

Your healthcare provider will ask about your symptoms and medical history and examine you. Tests may include:

  • Blood tests
  • Lumbar puncture, also called a spinal tap, which uses a needle to get a sample of fluid from the area around your spinal cord
  • CT scan, which uses X-rays and a computer to show detailed pictures of the brain
  • MRI, which uses a strong magnetic field and radio waves to show detailed pictures of the brain
  • EEG (electroencephalogram), which uses small wires pasted or taped to your head to measure and record the electrical activity of your brain

How is it treated?

Herpes encephalitis is treated with antiviral medicine given by IV at the hospital. You may also need medicine to treat brain swelling or seizures. If you stop breathing, you can be put on a breathing machine. These life-support treatments are used until the medicine gets the virus under control and you start to get better.

How can I take care of myself?

Follow the treatment plan your provider recommends.

You may need to start a rehabilitation program to help you recover and adapt to problems caused by the infection. This may include physical therapy, occupational therapy, or speech therapy.

  • Physical therapy can help your muscles get strong again. You will learn ways to move safely if you have weak or paralyzed muscles.
  • Occupational therapy may help if you have problems doing things like eating and getting dressed.
  • Speech therapy may help if you have problems with swallowing, speaking, or understanding words.

Ask your provider:

  • How and when you will hear your test results
  • How to take care of yourself at home
  • How long it will take to recover from this illness
  • If there are activities you should avoid and when you can return to normal activities
  • What symptoms or problems you should watch for and what to do if you have them

Make sure you know when you should come back for a checkup. Keep all appointments for provider visits or tests.

How can I help prevent herpes encephalitis?

The herpes virus is everywhere in the environment. Wash your hands carefully and often to help keep from getting the virus.

When you have herpes blisters anywhere on your body:

  • Avoid touching the blisters. The blister fluid contains live virus. If you do touch a blister, wash your hands as soon as possible. Wash your hands well but gently. This helps prevent damage to your skin and openings for the virus to get into another part of the body. Don’t touch the sores and then touch your eyes or nose, where the infection could be spread. You may want to put a nonstick dressing, such as Telfa, on the blisters.
  • Avoid kissing, foreplay, or sex when you have a cold sore or sores on your genitals.
  • Avoid sharing soaps, washcloths, cosmetics (especially lip balm or lipstick), and utensils for eating or drinking. Dispose of or wash your personal items, such as tissues and eating utensils, yourself.
Developed by RelayHealth.
Adult Advisor 2015.1 published by RelayHealth.
Last modified: 2015-01-28
Last reviewed: 2015-01-28
This content is reviewed periodically and is subject to change as new health information becomes available. The information is intended to inform and educate and is not a replacement for medical evaluation, advice, diagnosis or treatment by a healthcare professional.
Copyright ©1986-2015 McKesson Corporation and/or one of its subsidiaries. All rights reserved.

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