Encephalitis and Its Relationship to STDs

Encephalitis is an infection of the brain tissue. It is usually caused by a virus. Some types of viruses that can cause encephalitis include arboviruses, enteroviruses, and herpes viruses. However, most viral infections do not lead to encephalitis. It is a rare complication of an infection.

Conceptual image of Encephalitis.

Stocktrek Images / Getty Images

Symptoms of encephalitis are highly variable and include:

  • Headaches
  • Fever
  • Memory problems
  • Personality changes
  • Other problems less obviously linked to the brain, such as nausea.

These symptoms are caused by the swelling of the brain that occurs during infection. Depending on the severity of inflammation, encephalitis can cause mild, reversible or major, lasting health problems. Encephalitis is more likely to occur in young children and older adults as well as those who are immunocompromised - such as by HIV.

If you experience altered consciousness, memory or personality changes, or other symptoms of brain swelling, get care immediately. These symptoms are not something to mess around with. Prompt diagnosis and treatment can help to prevent the worst side effects of an infection in the brain.

The Relationship Between STDs and Encephalitis

Encephalitis can be a consequence of either neonatal or adult herpes infection. In fact, some scientists think that herpes encephalitis may be a risk factor for Alzheimer's disease. Encephalitis can be caused by either HSV-1 or HSV-2. However, most herpes infections in adults do not lead to encephalitis. It is an extremely rare complication.

Herpes encephalitis is one of the reasons that neonatal herpes can be fatal. It can also be fatal in adult patients, although it is less common. A significant fraction of herpes encephalitis patients die even when they receive antiviral medication in a timely manner. The risk of death or severe brain damage from herpes encephalitis is higher in individuals who do not receive prompt treatment. Herpes encephalitis may be more common in people who are immunocompromised, just as encephalitis is in general.

Untreated HIV infection is also associated with an increased risk of neurocognitive problems. This includes encephalitis. However, much of the brain damage caused by HIV is due to relatively low-level swelling. It is not necessarily a result of direct infection of the brain. HIV infection of the CNS can occur, but it's not the only reason HIV causes such problems.

HIV encephalitis is more often caused by a secondary viral infection, such as infection with cytomegalovirus or CMV. Neurosyphilis can also occur in those with HIV as can central nervous system tuberculosis. With these pathogens, brain infection can occur whether or not someone has HIV. However, encephalitis is usually more common in those who have HIV than in those who don't.

A Word From Verywell

Encephalitis is not a common complication of STDs, but it can happen. Fortunately, proper treatment of viral STDs, such as HIV and HSV, reduces the already low risk. That's a good idea in any event. Proper treatment of these STDs also improves your overall health and risk of transmitting the virus to a partner.

Verywell Health uses only high-quality sources, including peer-reviewed studies, to support the facts within our articles. Read our editorial process to learn more about how we fact-check and keep our content accurate, reliable, and trustworthy.

By Elizabeth Boskey, PhD
Elizabeth Boskey, PhD, MPH, CHES, is a social worker, adjunct lecturer, and expert writer in the field of sexually transmitted diseases.