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Difference Between Meningitis and Encephalitis

Difference between Meningitis and Encephalitis

Both encephalitis and meningitis are severe illnesses caused due to viral or bacterial infection and result in the inflammation of the brain. The two conditions are however distinctly different. Meningeal infections, which affect the protective layers (cellular tissues) that encircle the brain and spinal cord, frequently result in meningitis. On the other side, encephalitis occurs due to the swelling (inflammation) of the entire brain. Both conditions can be brought on by a virus, bacterium, or other substances.


Both are neurological disorders caused by infectious or non-infectious agents. In both the conditions, there is swelling and inflammation of the nervous system and the spinal cord involved. Viral agents is the cause in both the conditions.  


The infection of the meninges (three layers of membranes that cover and protect your brain and spinal cord) is known as meningitis. It typically pertains to infections brought on by parasites, bacteria (Streptococcus pneumoniae), fungi (Cryptococcus, Histoplasma, Blastomyces) viruses (Herpesviruses), and other microorganisms.

Bacterial meningitis (life threatening and can result in death in hours) is the most prevalent type of meningitis. If not treated in time, it can cause death. 


Brain inflammation known as encephalitis can be brought on by a virus, bacteria, medicine, or immune system problem. A rare, frequently severe condition called encephalitis calls for prompt medical attention.

Difference between Meningitis and Encephalitis



Meningitis is an inflammation of the meninges (which protects the nervous system), the protective layer surrounding the brain and spinal cord. It is usually caused by bacterial, fungal and viral agents.


Encephalitis is a rare but serious condition that causes inflammation of the brain itself. It is caused only by the viral agents. 



  • Headache
  • Vomiting
  • High temperature/fever
  • Confusion
  • Drowsiness
  • Double vision
  • Numbness in your face
  • Stiff neck 
  • Upset stomach 
  • Skin rash and discoloration
  • Lack of thirst
  • Lack of concentration


  • Vomiting
  • Incessant crying
  • A bulge on the top center of the head termed as the fontanel
  • Behavioral changes
  • Dizziness
  • Paralysis
  • Hearing loss
  • Unconsciousness



Common tests to diagnose meningitis include:

  • Blood cultures
  • Spinal tap
  • Imaging. Computerized tomography (CT) or magnetic resonance imaging (MRI) 


  • A CT scan to look for alterations in the shape of the brain. 
  • An MRI to identify the distinctive brain changes that indicate the illness.
  • An electroencephalogram (EEG) test – People with encephalitis may have sharp pulses in one or both of their temporal lobes on an EEG, which records the electrical activity of the brain.



Medications – Antibiotics, Antiviral medication, steroids, Penicillin, ampicillin, and ceftriaxone.

Palliative care – Hospitalization and oxygen therapy

Over-the-counter pain medicines if you have a fever or aches


You may need:

  • Antibiotics 
  • For treating inflammation – acetaminophen (Tylenol, others), ibuprofen (Advil, Motrin IB)
  • Anticonvulsants
  • Surgery
  • Immunoglobulin therapy
  • Therapeutic plasma exchange:
  • For treating viral infections (antiviral medications)
  • For controlling seizures (antiseizure medicines)
  • Breathing assistance (mechanical ventilation)
  • Immunomodulators
  • For maintaining your hydration status – Intravenous (IV) fluids 
  • Steroids
  • Tube feeding 
  • A detailed rehabilitation
  • A cognitive rehabilitation


The points of difference between Meningitis and Encephalitis have been summarized as below:


Which is more serious encephalitis or meningitis? 

For otherwise healthy individuals, bacterial meningitis can be fatal or result in stroke, hearing loss, or damage to nervous system. Even though encephalitis is frequently mild, severe cases can result in acquired brain damage and other long-term side effects

What is the difference between encephalitis and meningitis radiology? 

Encephalitis is an infection of the entire brain tissue, whereas meningitis is an inflammation of the (protective membranes of the brain and the spiral cord) meninges. 

What is the difference between meningitis encephalitis and brain abscess? 

Meningitis can develop if pathogens penetrate these layers and cause an inflammatory reaction. The inflammatory reaction causes encephalitis if they manage to enter the brain parenchyma itself. And if a disease isolates itself, it is referred to as a brain abscess.

What is the difference between encephalitis and encephalopathy? 

Terms like encephalopathy and encephalitis are commonly misused. Even though the sounds are identical, the conditions are different. In encephalitis, the brain itself swells or becomes swollen. Encephalopathy, on the other hand, refers to the cerebral condition that can develop as a result of different medical conditions.

How do you rule out meningitis from encephalitis? 

Symptoms of meningitis differ from encephalitis. Meningitis symptoms include vomiting, sleepiness, photophobia, headache, stiff neck, blotchy rashes and symptoms of encephalitis include seizures, difficulty speaking, confusion, focal deficits.

What is the most common cause of encephalitis?

Encephalitis is caused by herpes simplex viruses type 1 and 2 (more commonly known as herpes) which is the main virus responsible for cold sores and the varicella zoster virus (also known as human herpesvirus 3 or Human alphaherpesvirus 3) and enteroviruses (a group of viruses that cause a variety of infections).

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References :

[0]Feigin, R. D., MCCRACKEN JR, G. H., & Klein, J. O. (1992). Diagnosis and management of meningitis. The Pediatric infectious disease journal, 11(9), 785.

[1]Lyons, J. L. (2018). Viral meningitis and encephalitis. Continuum: Lifelong Learning in Neurology, 24(5), 1284-1297.

[2]Solomon, T. (2004). Flavivirus encephalitis. New England Journal of Medicine, 351(4), 370-378.

[3]Swanson, D. (2015). Meningitis. Pediatrics in review, 36(12), 514-526.

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