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Encephalitis is an often life-threatening illness caused by infection, usually viral, or by autoimmune diseases affecting the brain. Survivors are frequently left with an acquired brain injury, of varying degree and severity. It can occur at any age but is considered fairly uncommon.
Encephalitis means inflammation of the brain. The inflammation is caused either by an infection invading the brain (infectious Encephalitis); or through the immune system attacking the brain in error (autoimmune Encephalitis).
Compared to other infectious diseases, Encephalitis has a high mortality rate. When death occurs it is usually a result of the brain swelling because of inflammation. The brain is encased in a hard shell (the skull) and when it swells it pushes downwards onto the brain stem. This part of the brain controls the vital functions of breathing and control of the heart. When the brain stem is subjected to severe pressure it ceases to function.
With improvements in drug therapy and intensive care treatments, many more people survive Encephalitis. The acute phase of the illness (the time of active brain inflammation) can last anything from a few days to two or three months.