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Encephalitis and meningitis are both conditions that affect your brain.

Both can be caused by viruses, bacteria, fungi, or parasites. They’re also both considered serious and need to be treated right away by a medical professional.

Despite similarities, encephalitis and meningitis are not the same. Let’s look at the big differences between encephalitis and meningitis.

The biggest distinction between encephalitis and meningitis comes down to the part of your body that these conditions most impact.

Meningitis is a swelling of the membranes that surround your brain (meninges) and spinal cord. Encephalitis is inflammation of the brain itself.


Meningitis and encephalitis can both be caused by a virus.

Viral meningitis is the most common type of meningitis. It’s less severe than bacterial meningitis. Viral encephalitis is the most common type of encephalitis. Both viral conditions be caused by:

Viral encephalitis is more likely to be caused by a type of virus called a non-polio enterovirus than by other viruses.

Bacterial meningitis needs to be diagnosed and treated immediately. It can be caused by bacterial infections such as Streptococcus pneumoniae, Haemophilus influenzae b, or several other strains of bacterial.

A bacterial infection can also cause encephalitis, but it is not common.


A headache, fatigue, and high fever can all be symptoms of either condition. But the onset of symptoms and symptom severity of meningitis and encephalitis are different.

Symptoms of meningitis may come on suddenly. At first, there may not be any symptoms at all. But once meningitis starts to progress, the symptoms become quite severe.

Symptoms of meningitis

Symptoms of meningitis may include:

  • cold hands or feet
  • neck stiffness
  • headache
  • vomiting
  • dizziness
  • fever over 103° F
  • spots or a rash
  • seizures
  • heavy breathing

Symptoms of encephalitis

Symptoms of encephalitis may be mild at first, but can build in severity as an infection progresses without treatment.

Symptoms of encephalitis may include:

  • headache
  • fever over 103° F
  • aching joints
  • drowsiness
  • irritability/agitation
  • blurred eyesight
  • slurred speech
  • weakness and fatigue
  • confusion
  • paralysis

Who gets it?

Anyone can get meningitis or encephalitis. Every year, people of all age groups are diagnosed with these conditions.

People who have autoimmune conditions or otherwise weakened immune systems may be at higher risk. Taking immune-suppressing medications can also increase your risk.


Treatments for encephalitis and meningitis depend on the severity of your condition and how much it has progressed.

Bacterial meningitis treatments

All bacterial meningitis must be treated in the hospital. Viral meningitis may also be treated in the hospital depending on your symptoms.

Treatments typically include:

  • an antibiotic IV drip to treat bacterial meningitis
  • IV fluids to prevent dehydration
  • steroid medication to prevent brain swelling
  • oxygen if you’re having difficulty breathing

If you have a more mild case of viral meningitis, you may be able to treat it at home. Treatment may include:

  • over-the-counter painkillers
  • drinking lots of fluid
  • getting plenty of rest

Encephalitis treatments

Encephalitis always needs to be treated in the hospital.

Treatments may include:

  • steroid medication to reduce swelling in the brain
  • antibiotics, antifungal, or antiviral medication to treat the cause
  • immunoglobulin therapy
  • plasmapheresis


Both encephalitis and meningitis can cause long-term complications related to brain function, concentration, and mobility.

Complications of meningitis can include:

Complications from encephalitis may include:

  • memory loss
  • loss of speech or language capabilities
  • mental health conditions, such as depression
  • chronic fatigue
  • recurrent seizures
  • changes in personality or behavior

If you have meningitis or encephalitis, your prognosis will vary according to the cause and how early you start treatment.

Getting early treatment is critical for the best possible outcome. People with a mild case of either condition tend to recover within 2 to 4 weeks.

It’s estimated that 1 in every 2 or 3 people who recover from bacterial meningitis will have long-term complications. Complications from viral meningitis are less common. With treatment, most people recover from meningitis.

Most people also recover from encephalitis if it’s treated promptly.

Neurological symptoms of both conditions can take several months to fully resolve. In some cases, neurological complications may become permanent.

It’s possible to have both encephalitis and meningitis at the same time. This condition is called meningoencephalitis. This happens when the thin layers of tissue that surround your brain and spinal cord become inflamed in addition to swelling and inflammation in your brain itself.

Symptoms are similar to meningitis or encephalitis, and may include:

  • headache
  • fever over 103° F
  • stiff neck
  • seizures
  • sensitivity to light
  • losing consciousness

Without treatment, meningoencephalitis can lead to severe complications, such as:

  • memory loss
  • hearing loss
  • vision loss
  • death

If you think you have any type of meningitis or encephalitis, see a doctor right away.

If you have any of the following symptoms, seek immediate medical attention:

  • seizures
  • prolonged neck stiffness accompanied by headache
  • fever over 103° F
  • difficulty hearing or speaking
  • disorientation, dizziness, or nausea
  • loss of consciousness

Symptoms of encephalitis or meningitis in babies under 12 months may also include a swelling of the fontanels (soft spot) on an infant’s skull.

Meningitis and encephalitis are both neurological conditions that directly affect your brain.

While these conditions have some causes and symptoms in common, they are treated differently. If left untreated, both conditions can lead to brain damage or prove fatal.

Speak to a medical professional right away if you have symptoms of encephalitis or meningitis.