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What is Brain Inflammation?

By J.M. Willhite
Updated Mar 03, 2024
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Brain inflammation is a potentially life-threatening condition characterized by brain swelling and, in some cases, meningeal irritation. Generally brought on by infection, this condition can trigger a variety of symptoms depending on the severity of swelling. Encephalitis and meningitis are two main inflammatory brain conditions induced by infection. Treatment is dependent on the severity of one's condition and the cause of the inflammation.

Viral infection is usually the genesis of brain inflammation. Aggressive viruses can originate in one part of the body only to subsequently migrate to the brain, or they may attack the nervous system at the outset. Common viruses that may induce brain swelling include herpetic conditions, like Varicella-zoster, and West Nile. Brain inflammation may also occur due to parasitic or bacterial infection, such as that which can result from exposure to Toxoplasma gondii or Streptococcus pneumoniae.

Several diagnostic tests may be performed to confirm the presence of this condition. Generally, a spinal tap will be conducted to obtain a cerebrospinal fluid (CSF) specimen for analysis. Depending on the cause of the brain swelling, one’s CSF will demonstrate certain abnormalities or markers indicative of infection, such as an elevated white blood cell count and decreased glucose. A blood panel and imaging tests may also be used to assess antibody levels and measure the extent of brain swelling.

It is not unheard of for individuals with mild brain inflammation to remain asymptomatic, meaning they experience no obvious signs that anything is wrong. Depending on the degree of inflammation, symptomatic individuals will generally present with a variety of signs that usually develop acutely. A sudden, pronounced deterioration of one’s condition, including loss of consciousness and paralysis, is considered indicative of severe inflammation necessitating immediate medical attention.

Initial swelling will usually induce symptoms that include persistent headache, lethargy and a low-grade fever. With time, an individual’s cognition may become impaired and he or she may experience confusion or exhibit uncharacteristic mood swings. It is not uncommon for joint stiffness and widespread muscle weakness to likewise occur. In some cases, seizures, skin irritation and nausea may also present.

If appropriate treatment is delayed or absent, the inflammation can result in serious complications. Individuals may be left permanently physically disabled, go into shock, or experience widespread organ failure. Late-stage complications can result in coma and death.

Viral-based inflammation generally involves the administration of fluids to prevent dehydration, sufficient bed rest and the use of OTC analgesics to alleviate discomfort. Severe or persistent infection may necessitate hospitalization and the intravenous administration of anti-inflammatory and antiviral medications. Since some viruses demonstrate resistance to certain medications, an accurate identification of the responsible virus is essential to a good prognosis.

Individuals with bacterial-based brain inflammation may receive multi-faceted treatment. Generally a broad-spectrum, oral antibiotic is utilized until a definitive bacterial identification is made. Acute inflammation often requires hospitalization and intravenous antibiotics and anti-inflammatory medications to eradicate infection and reduce swelling. Cases of severe swelling that have significantly impaired motor and cognitive functions may necessitate subsequent rehabilitation, such as physical and speech therapies.

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Discussion Comments
By stoneMason — On Dec 11, 2014

Water poisoning can cause brain inflammation too. An athlete died because of it last year. She chugged down liters of water within minutes after a competition. Her body could not handle so much water. It caused her brain to swell and she died by the time they got her to the hospital.

Most people don't even know that it's possible to drink too much water. And we also have people telling us to drink more water all the time. It's fine to drink 2 - 2.5 liters of water per day but it needs to be distributed throughout the day. Drinking a lot of water very quickly is a great way to get water poisoning and possibly, brain inflammation.

By literally45 — On Dec 10, 2014

@serenesurface-- I had never heard of that treatment before. It sounds scary. But it can't be more scary than the consequences of untreated brain inflammation.

My niece had meningitis when she was little and we were so scared that she would have this complication. Children can die or become mentally or physically disable due to it. Thankfully, my niece's meningitis never got to that stage. She responded to treatment quite well.

By serenesurface — On Dec 09, 2014

I just read about a celebrity in the news yesterday who had to have surgery due to brain inflammation. I'm not a medical person so I'm not sure if I understood it right. But I think what happened was that he had brain swelling and increased pressure in the brain as a result. So they had to drill a hole in his skull to release some of the pressure. I have no idea if this kind of treatment is used often for brain inflammation but this is how I understood the situation. He is doing fine now though, his procedure was a success.

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