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Encephalopathy: Types, Causes, Symptoms, Diagnosis, Treatment, Prevention

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Encephalopathy is a condition usually confused with encephalitis due to the way both sound. But they are different. Encephalitis is a condition where there is brain inflammation. On the other hand, encephalopathy is a mental state resulting from various brain-related issues. But encephalopathy can result from encephalitis. It is vital to be aware of this difference. This blog is a comprehensive guide on encephalopathy, its types, causes and treatment options available.  

What is encephalopathy? 

The meaning of encephalopathy is damage or disease that affects the brain. Changes in brain functions or changes in the body which may affect the brain may result in encephalopathy. 

Such changes may lead to changes in mental state, confusion, or behaviour. It is a group of disorders with different causes. This severe health condition causes temporary or permanent brain damage without proper treatment.

Are there different types of encephalopathy, and what are their causes?

Encephalopathy can be reversible and irreversible. The reversible causes are as follows:  

  • Hepatic encephalopathy: When the liver fails to eliminate toxins from the body, it accumulates, and the brain finds it difficult to function properly. Patients with cirrhosis or other chronic liver diseases and those who have taken an excessive amount of acetaminophen or other drugs may experience it. 
  • Wernicke encephalopathy: This is a kind of encephalopathy caused due to excessive intake of alcohol. It can cause brain damage and memory-related issues. 
  • Hashimoto’s encephalopathy: This type of encephalopathy has a connection to Hashimoto’s disease, a thyroid disorder. Although the exact cause is unknown, the immune system may attack the brain and alters its functions. 
  • Metabolic encephalopathy:  It is caused due to other health conditions, including diabetes, liver disease, and kidney or heart failure, which compromise the brain’s ability to function. For instance, diabetic patients may experience confusion and a coma if their blood sugar levels become too high. 
  • Encephalopathy due to infections: Infections in different body parts, such as a urinary tract infection, or the brain, such as encephalitis or meningitis, can cause encephalopathy. It can also result from sepsis, a severe body response to infection. 
  • Encephalopathy due to brain cancer: The growth of tumours in the brain is another cause.  
  • Encephalopathy due to exposure to toxins: Toxins such as solvents, medicines, radiation, paints, industrial chemicals, and certain metals over an extended period can cause encephalopathy. 
  • Encephalopathy due to epileptic seizures: It may occur when epileptic episodes repeatedly happen in the brain, even though they may not physically manifest as symptoms. 
  • Infectious encephalopathy occurs due to a rare group of conditions known as prion diseases or transmissible spongiform encephalopathies. Prion diseases are linked to a protein mutation called a prion. 

Prion diseases are neurodegenerative, which can cause brain damage and worsen or deteriorate brain functions over time. Doctors find tiny holes in the brain that give a spongy appearance. The following are examples of prion diseases that may lead to infectious encephalopathy:

  • Fatal familial insomnia
  • Kuru
  • Chronic wasting disease
  • Creutzfeldt-Jakob

There are several irreversible types of encephalopathy, including: 

  • Chronic traumatic encephalopathy: Recurrent head injuries cause this type of encephalopathy. High-impact sports, such as football and boxing, can cause this.
  • Hypoxic-ischemic encephalopathy: It occurs when the brain receives insufficient oxygen. It causes brain damage. A cardiac arrest, carbon monoxide poisoning, drug overdose, or drowning can cause it. 

What are the symptoms of encephalopathy? 

Some common symptoms are:  

  • Confusion 
  • Memory loss 
  • Changes in behaviour 
  • Having trouble focusing or thinking clearly 

Some individuals may also have problems like:  

  • difficulty speaking 
  • difficulty swallowing 
  • sleepiness 
  • seizures 
  • muscle weakness or uncontrollable twitches 
  • uncontrollable eye movements
  • tremors 

When to see a doctor? 

Call the healthcare provider or visit the emergency department if a person exhibits the symptoms of encephalopathy. 


What are the methods to diagnose encephalopathy? 

The healthcare provider will perform a physical examination and inquire about the patient’s health history, particularly any drugs being taken. They may also prescribe other tests, such as the following: 

  • urine and blood tests 
  • testing of spinal fluid 
  • tests of focus, memory, and other mental abilities 
  • EEG tests, which assess the electrical activity in the brain 
  • imaging studies like computed tomography (CT) or magnetic resonance imaging (MRI), 

What are the treatment options for patients with encephalopathy? 

The course of treatment a patient requires depends on the cause of encephalopathy. The healthcare provider may suggest the following: 

  • Medication to stop seizures  
  • Dietary supplements 
  • Medication to reduce ammonia levels 
  • Make changes in the diet of the patient 
  • Stopping an existing drug that the patient is taking 
  • If liver or kidney issues are the root cause of the condition, the patient may need dialysis or an organ transplant. 

Are there preventive measures for encephalopathy?

Some types of encephalopathy are preventable, whereas some are not. The ones which are hereditary and genetic are not preventable. But some varieties, such as hepatic encephalopathy, may be prevented with some lifestyle adjustments.  

The following steps may help one to avoid the risk of getting encephalopathy.  

  • Taking proper precautions to avoid head injuries 
  • Avoiding excessive alcohol consumption 
  • Minimizing exposure to toxins 
  • Maintaining a healthy diet and keeping optimal weight 
  • Avoiding medications that are harmful to the nervous system 
  • Regular health screening


The cure of encephalopathy mostly depends on the cause and whether it is a reversible or irreversible one. The physical damage to the brain caused due to head injuries, poisons, cardiac arrest, or a lack of oxygen is typically irreversible, which means the mental state may not return to what it was. But most cases are curable with timely medical intervention and treatment. Always look for signs and seek medical help as soon as the symptoms are spotted.  

Frequently Asked Questions (FAQs) 

Is poor nutrition a reason for encephalopathy? 

Yes. Lack of adequate nutrition can cause encephalopathy. 

Is encephalopathy fatal? 

Some kinds of encephalopathy cause irreversible and permanent damage to the brain and can turn fatal.  

Does encephalopathy cause personality changes? 

Yes. Encephalopathy can cause personality changes in patients.  

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At Apollo, we believe that easily accessible, reliable health information can make managing health conditions an empowering experience. AskApollo Online Health Library team consists of medical experts who create curated peer-reviewed medical content that is regularly updated and is easy-to-understand.
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