Encephalitis vs Meningitis – Symptoms, Causes, Diagnosis, Treatment, Differences 

Encephalitis is inflammation of the brain and is typically caused by a viral infection. It is a rare disease that occurs in about 0.5 per 100,000 individuals.

In the US, this condition is responsible for an estimated 19,000 hospitalizations per year. In the United Kingdom, it affects approximately 4,000 people every year. It is most common in the elderly, children, and individuals with weakened immune systems.


There are two main types: secondary encephalitis (SE) and primary encephalitis (PE). SE occurs when an infection starts elsewhere in the body and then travels to the brain. PE occurs when a virus directly infects the spinal cord and the brain.


Common symptoms include:

  • aches in joints or muscles;
  • headaches;
  • seizures;
  • fever;
  • muscle weakness;
  • weakness;
  • troubles hearing;
  • problems with speech;
  • fatigue;
  • loss of consciousness;
  • hallucinations;
  • paralysis in certain areas of the face;
  • agitation;
  • confusion.

In infants and young children, symptoms might also include:

  • body stiffness;
  • bulging in the fontanels of an infant’s skull;
  • irritability;
  • poor feeding;
  • vomiting;
  • nausea.


The main causes of this condition include:

  • arboviruses, that are transmitted by mosquitoes;
  • herpes viruses;
  • fungus;
  • bacteria;
  • parasites;
  • autoimmune diseases;
  • certain medication.


Your healthcare professional may order the following tests:

  • serum glucose level;
  • complete blood count;
  • serum toxicology screening;
  • magnetic resonance imaging scan;
  • urine electrolyte levels;
  • electroencephalogram;
  • blood urea nitrogen;
  • serum electrolyte levels.


This condition needs to be treated urgently. Possible treatments include:

  • surgery to remove abnormal growths;
  • plasmapheresis (blood, or plasma, is separated from the blood cells);
  • immunoglobulin therapy;
  • steroid injections;
  • antiviral medication.


It is an inflammation of the membranes surrounding the spinal cord and the brain. It can be caused by viruses or bacteria. You must get treatment as fast as possible since this condition can cause death.

This serious condition most likely affects teenagers, young children, and young adults, with about 80 percent of all patients occurring in those aged 0–19 years.


There are two main types:

  • Bacterial meningitis (BM) – it can be more severe and the sufferer will need ongoing antibiotics. If treated promptly, BM is less likely to become life-threatening.
  • Viral meningitis (VM) – it is not as severe as BM. Enteroviruses account for approximately 85 percent of all cases of VM. The treatment does not include antibiotics. Usually, complete recovery takes 7 to 10 days.


Common symptoms in newborns may include:

  • irritability;
  • fever;
  • constant crying;
  • lethargy;
  • poor feeding;
  • trouble waking;
  • constant sleepiness;
  • rapid breathing;
  • abnormal reflexes;
  • bulging fontanelle;
  • frequent vomiting;
  • lacking alertness.

In adults, common symptoms may include:

  • headaches;
  • high temperature;
  • aching joints and muscles;
  • feeling sick;
  • pale, mottled skin;
  • a lack of energy;
  • a stiff neck;
  • irritability;
  • confusion;
  • seizures;
  • drowsiness;
  • a dislike of bright lights;
  • cold feet and hands;
  • breathing quickly.


This condition is usually caused by viruses and bacteria, including:

    • the herpes simplex virus – a virus which typically causes genital herpes or cold sores;
    • the mumps virus –  passes from one individual to another through nasal secretions, saliva, and close personal contact;
    • enteroviruses – viruses that typically only cause a mild stomach infection;
    • Haemophilus influenzae type b bacteria;
    • pneumococcal bacteria;
    • meningococcal bacteria – there are a few types, called A, B, C, W, X, Y, and Z.

VM can be spread in a few ways:

  • contact with food or dust contaminated by the stool or urine of infected pet hamsters or mice;
  • use of infected needles to inject drugs;
  • bloodstream from an infection in another part of the body;
  • air by inhaling the virus;
  • contact with contaminated stool, that may occur when infected people do not wash their hands after a bowel movement;
  • a bite of an insect, like – a mosquito;
  • sexual intercourse with an infected person.


This condition is usually diagnosed with the help of a combination of:

  • blood tests;
  • urine tests;
  • a lumbar puncture (spinal tap);
  • CT scan;
  • X-ray;
  • a thorough physical examination.


For BM, antibiotics will be used to treat the underlying infection. Antibiotics will be given intravenously.

Most sufferers make a full recovery after having this condition. However, some can experience serious complications, especially if this condition goes untreated. These complications include:

  • kidney failure;
  • seizures;
  • inflammation of the heart;
  • hydrocephalus (accumulation of cerebrospinal fluid within the brain);
  • hearing loss;
  • brain damage;
  • death.

Encephalitis vs Meningitis – Differences

Encephalitis refers to an acute inflammatory process that affects the brain. It usually occurs when a vaccine, virus, or something else triggers inflammation or when a virus directly infects the brain.

This condition can be very serious, leading to seizures, personality changes, weakness, and other symptoms.

Meningitis is an infection of the meninges surrounding the brain and spinal cord. It can be caused by a fungal, bacterial, or viral infection. Common symptoms include – feeling generally unwell, vomiting, nausea, fever, and a severe headache.

In conclusion, encephalitis is the inflammation of the brain, while meningitis is the inflammation of the membranes which cover the brain.

Images credit – Shutterstock & Getty

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