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What Is the Difference between Meningitis and Encephalitis?

By Sandra Koehler
Updated Mar 03, 2024
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Meningitis and encephalitis are both infections that affect the brain. The difference between the two is observed in the region of the brain they infect. These infection processes each can cause inflammation or swelling of the brain and could trigger serious side effects or even death.

While both infections affect the brain, meningitis attacks the meninges or the protective film-like covering of the brain and the spinal cord. Symptoms can come on rapidly and often include a severe headache, stiff neck and possible fever. Encephalitis, on the other hand, affects the brain itself, presenting with flu-like symptoms. Each condition can occur on its own or in conjunction with the other.

Both conditions may cause problems with things like memory, concentration and sleep. Each condition may also cause confusion, nausea with or without vomiting, and possible seizure activity. Meningitis may also present with a skin discoloration or rash. Encephalitis may trigger problems with sensations or feelings in the limbs, with the possibility of weakness or even paralysis.

The infection that prompts meningitis and encephalitis is usually caused by a bacteria or virus transmitted by close contact with an infected person, commonly through an exchange of bodily fluids. The bacteria causing these conditions can survive and be transported through saliva, nasal secretions or bowel excrement. Contracting these infections can occur by sharing personal items or by even living in close proximity to an infected person. Once inside the body, the infection enters the bloodstream and makes its way to the brain.

The swelling caused by meningitis and encephalitis can resolve on its own, depending on the severity of the infection. Serious long-lasting side effects of meningitis and encephalitis can include such things as difficulties with speech, hearing, sight, or memory and changes in behavior or mood. Severe cases of either infection can also include loss of muscle coordination or the inability to move a particular body part, also referred to as paralysis, and damage to the brain.

Severe meningitis has the potential to cause the failure of certain organs in the body, particularly the kidneys. If left untreated, meningitis may also cause the body to go into shock, a life-threatening condition in which the body does not circulate enough blood, significantly decreasing the amount of oxygen and nutrients traveling through the body.

Encephalitis can affect breathing by causing respiratory distress or severe problems breathing. Respiratory distress, like shock, decreases the amount of oxygen moving through the body. If the infection process is severe enough, it can cause the body to fall into a coma, a state of unconsciousness. Meningitis and encephalitis, left untreated in their most dangerous state could even cause death.

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Discussion Comments

By jmiller2 — On Jan 08, 2014

The symptoms of Encephalitis are similar to a mild case of flu and some people may never realize they have it at all.

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