Health Information and Tools > Patient Care Handouts >  Learning About Encephalopathy in Children

Main Content

Learning About Encephalopathy in Children

Child's head, showing brain and blood vessels in brain and leading into brain

What is encephalopathy?

Encephalopathy is a condition that affects the brain. It can affect memory, thinking, and personality. It can also affect the nerves and muscles in the body. These problems may last a short time or cause problems over the long term.

What causes it?

Many things can cause this condition. These include lack of oxygen or blood to the brain, infections, problems with metabolism, and abnormal genes. Toxins in the home or environment or being exposed to alcohol or drugs before or after birth may cause it too.

What are the symptoms?

The type of symptoms and how bad they are vary. They may happen slowly and cause a gradual loss of function. Or they may happen suddenly and cause life-threatening problems.

In a newborn, the condition may cause your baby to:

  • Have problems breathing or feeding.
  • Not react or be slow to react to touch.
  • Breathe in fluids, vomit, or mucus into the lungs.
  • Stop breathing.

In a young child or teen, the condition may:

  • Make it hard for your child to think clearly, focus, and remember things.
  • Affect how alert your child is. Your child may be drowsy. Or your child may seem to be awake and aware but doesn't respond when spoken to.
  • Affect your child's personality or mood. Your child may be cranky, grouchy, or depressed.

Other symptoms may include:

  • Seizures, jerky body movements, or tremors.
  • Feeling sluggish.
  • Poor muscle tone or overactive muscles.
  • Sleep problems.
  • Passing out (fainting).

How is it diagnosed?

The doctor will ask about your child's symptoms, past health, and exposure to toxins. The doctor will do a physical exam and watch how your child interacts and behaves. The doctor may order blood and urine tests. An electroencephalogram (EEG) or an imaging test like an MRI or a lumbar puncture may be done.

How is it treated?

The doctor will treat what's causing the problem. For example:

  • If your baby didn't get enough oxygen or blood to the brain during birth, the doctor may use special techniques to cool your child's brain or core body temperature. This can help prevent more damage to the brain.
  • If your child's kidneys or liver aren't working the way they should, the doctor may prescribe medicines or other treatments that help the organ work better. Treatment can also prevent the buildup of toxins in the blood.
  • If your child has an infection, antibiotics may be needed.

If the doctor can't treat the cause of the problem, the doctor will treat the symptoms. For example, the doctor may prescribe medicine to control seizures.

If symptoms are severe, your child may need to be treated in the hospital.

How can you get support to help care for your child?

Your child may have physical and learning problems because of encephalopathy. But getting support can help you care for your child. Here are some ideas.

  • Talk to your doctor if your child needs specialized care.

    Your child may need:

    • Physiotherapy. It can improve balance and motor skills.
    • Occupational therapy. It can help with daily activities, like eating and dressing.
  • Learn about your child's educational rights.

    Public schools are required to create an Individual Education Plan or Individualized Program Plan for children with special needs. This details your child's disability, appropriate teaching methods, and goals for the school year.

  • Work with your child's teacher.

    The teacher:

    • Can help make an education plan that focuses on your child's strengths and helps your child set goals.
    • May know about an in-school aide or tutor who can help your child.
  • Join a support group.

    Or talk with other parents who have a child with special needs.

  • Seek counselling.

    It can help you understand your feelings and work through them.

  • Think about respite care.

    This service provides a break for parents and siblings. This allows you to recharge, so you can be at your best for your child.

  • Take care of yourself.
    • Get enough rest, eat well, and exercise.

Care instructions adapted under license by your healthcare professional. If you have questions about a medical condition or this instruction, always ask your healthcare professional. Healthwise, Incorporated disclaims any warranty or liability for your use of this information.