Infectious and Autoimmune Causes of Encephalitis in Children

Pediatrics. 2020 Jun;145(6):e20192543. doi: 10.1542/peds.2019-2543. Epub 2020 May 1.


Background and objectives: Encephalitis can result in neurologic morbidity and mortality in children. Newly recognized infectious and noninfectious causes of encephalitis have become increasingly important over the past decade.

Methods: We retrospectively reviewed medical records from pediatric patients in Houston diagnosed with encephalitis in both an urban and rural catchment area between 2010 and 2017. We conducted an investigation to understand the etiology, clinical characteristics, and diagnostic testing practices in this population.

Results: We evaluated 231 patients who met the case definition of encephalitis, among which 42% had no recognized etiology. Among those with an identified etiology, the most common were infectious (73; 31%), including viral (n = 51; 22%), with the most frequent being West Nile virus (WNV; n = 12), and bacterial (n = 19; 8%), with the most frequent being Bartonella henselae (n = 7). Among cases of autoimmune encephalitis (n = 60; 26%), the most frequent cause was anti-N-methyl-D-aspartate receptor (NMDAR) encephalitis (n = 31). Autoimmune causes were seen more commonly in female (P < .01) patients. Testing for herpes simplex virus and enterovirus was nearly universal; testing for anti-NMDAR encephalitis, WNV, and Bartonella was less common.

Conclusions: WNV was the most common infectious cause of encephalitis in our pediatric population despite lower testing frequency for WNV than herpes simplex virus or enterovirus. Increasing testing for anti-NMDAR encephalitis resulted in frequent identification of cases. Increased awareness and testing for WNV and Bartonella would likely result in more identified causes of pediatric encephalitis. Earlier etiologic diagnosis of encephalitides may lead to improve clinical outcomes.

Publication types

  • Research Support, Non-U.S. Gov't

MeSH terms

  • Adolescent
  • Anti-N-Methyl-D-Aspartate Receptor Encephalitis / diagnosis
  • Anti-N-Methyl-D-Aspartate Receptor Encephalitis / epidemiology*
  • Anti-N-Methyl-D-Aspartate Receptor Encephalitis / immunology
  • Autoantibodies / immunology
  • Cat-Scratch Disease / diagnosis
  • Cat-Scratch Disease / epidemiology*
  • Cat-Scratch Disease / immunology
  • Child
  • Child, Preschool
  • Cohort Studies
  • Communicable Diseases / diagnosis
  • Communicable Diseases / epidemiology
  • Communicable Diseases / immunology
  • Encephalitis / diagnosis
  • Encephalitis / epidemiology*
  • Encephalitis / immunology
  • Female
  • Hashimoto Disease / diagnosis
  • Hashimoto Disease / epidemiology*
  • Hashimoto Disease / immunology
  • Humans
  • Infant
  • Infant, Newborn
  • Male
  • Retrospective Studies
  • West Nile Fever / diagnosis
  • West Nile Fever / epidemiology*
  • West Nile Fever / immunology


  • Autoantibodies

Supplementary concepts

  • Hashimoto's encephalitis