Download PDF Death from encephalitis

By Dr Ava Easton, Encephalitis Society

Encephalitis is a serious neurological condition and unfortunately, despite improvements in specific and more supportive treatments such as excellent intensive care management, it still has a high mortality (death) rate.

Some types of encephalitis can be treated with either specific anti-viral treatments (e.g. aciclovir for herpes simplex encephalitis) or immunomodulatory drugs (e.g. steroids or intravenous immunoglobulin for autoimmune encephalitis) but even with the right treatment certain types of encephalitis have mortality rates of between         10-30%. Some forms of encephalitis are more severe than others. For example, herpes simplex encephalitis (HSE) has a mortality rate of up to 30% even with specific anti-viral treatment, and 70-80% without the treatment.

When death happens it is usually because of the brain swelling as a result of its severe inflammation. The brain is wrapped in a bony shell (the skull) and when it swells it pushes downwards onto the brainstem. The brainstem is the part of the brain that controls the vital functions of breathing and circulation. When the brainstem is under this type of a severe pressure it ceases to function.

The rapid course of encephalitis can be traumatic and overwhelming. The realisation that sophisticated medical practices and 21st century drugs are sometimes unable to treat the disease successfully is frightening. Families who suffer a bereavement are often left feeling shocked and traumatised.

Death is always difficult for those who are left behind, but even more difficult when it is totally unexpected. There are a number of sources of help for families in grief and literature is available on the subject. Please see the factsheet on Bereavement for more detailed information on these resources.  We have support service staff at the Encephalitis Society who can talk through any issues that family and friends may have, and, if appropriate put bereaved families in touch with each other. Such sharing of difficult experiences can help the grieving process.


FS063V2 Death from encephalitis (acute stage)

Date created: January 1999; Last update: March 2016; Review date: March 2019

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