Healthdirect Free Australian health advice you can count on.

Medical problem? Call 1800 022 222. If you need urgent medical help, call triple zero immediately

healthdirect Australia is a free service where you can talk to a nurse or doctor who can help you know what to do.

beginning of content


3-minute read

The word encephalopathy describes any disturbance of the brain's functioning that leads to problems like confusion and memory loss.

Encephalopathy is not a single disease; it can have a wide range of underlying causes.

Types of encephalopathy

There are many types of encephalopathy, including:

  • Hepatic encephalopathy — a problem with the liver causes a build-up of toxic substances that the liver normally removes. These toxic substances then disturb the normal functioning of the brain. Hepatic encephalopathy can be caused by a chronic liver condition, an infection, overdose of prescription medications or bleeding in the digestive tract.
  • Chronic traumatic encephalopathy (CTE) — this is probably caused by repeated blows to the head and concussions. It is associated with contact sports such as boxing and football.
  • Hypoxic-ischaemic encephalopathy — in this case, lack of oxygen to the brain leads to abnormal brain function. This can be caused by heavy bleeding, near-drowning or near-suffocation.
  • Hashimoto’s encephalopathy — this type of encephalopathy is thought to be caused by a person’s immune system attacking the brain.

It can also be caused by:

  • infection from bacteria or viruses
  • problems with metabolism
  • brain tumours
  • exposure to toxic substances such as paints, solvents or radiation

Some people have acute encephalopathy, which comes on fairly quickly and can go away. Others have chronic encephalopathy, which tends to develop slowly and does not go away. Some encephalopathies cause permanent damage to the brain, while others do not. Some can be fatal.

Encephalopathy symptoms

The symptoms of encephalopathy vary from person to person.

The most common symptom of encephalopathy is a change in mental state, with problems such as:

  • loss of memory
  • reduced ability to think clearly or concentrate
  • changes in personality such as those involving irritability, aggression, impulsive behaviour or having suicidal thoughts

Some people might also have:

  • involuntary muscle twitching
  • difficulty speaking
  • unusual eye movements
  • tremor
  • muscle weakness
  • dementia
  • seizures
  • difficulty swallowing

Diagnosing an encephalopathy

If your doctor believes you might have encephalopathy, they will try to discover the underlying cause. This might be an infection, or a particular drug or medication you are taking.

To work out whether you have encephalopathy, and what type it might be, your doctor may use a combination of:

Treating an encephalopathy

People with an acute encephalopathy need to be treated in hospital. Treatment focuses on improving symptoms and can include:

  • medication to address the causes or treat some of the symptoms
  • making dietary changes or using nutritional supplements

In some severe cases of encephalopathy related to liver or kidney function, dialysis or organ replacement might be needed.

Hepatic encephalopathy is often reversible with treatment. However, people with a chronic liver disorder are more likely to have recurring episodes of encephalopathy and need ongoing treatment.

When to seek help

If you, or someone you know, notices any new problems that might be symptoms of encephalopathy, call your doctor or go to the nearest emergency department. This is especially important if you have already had a liver problem because hepatic encephalopathy can become an emergency.

Learn more here about the development and quality assurance of healthdirect content.

Last reviewed: July 2019

Back To Top

Need more information?

These trusted information partners have more on this topic.

Top results

Causes of Brain Injury - Synapse

Causes of Brain Injury Chronic Traumatic Encephalopathy Repeated, mild ABIs, such as concussions experienced by professional sports people like boxers and footballers, can be related to a neurodegenerative condition known as Chronic Traumatic Encephalopathy (CTE)

Read more on Synapse - Australia's Brain Injury Organisation website

Creutzfeldt-Jakob disease (CJD) factsheet - Fact sheets

A factsheet about Creutzfeldt-Jakob disease which is a rare brain disease that is caused by abnormal brain proteins called prions.

Read more on NSW Health website

Creutzfeldt-Jakob Disease - Brain Foundation

Creutzfeldt-Jakob Disease Read more at Virtual Medical Centre Description Creutzfeldt-Jakob disease (CJD) is a rare brain disorder

Read more on Brain Foundation website

Creutzfeldt-Jakob disease -

Creutzfeldt–Jakob disease (CJD) is a fatal, degenerative brain disorder that causes rapidly progressive dementia and loss of muscle control. It is a rare disease, affecting 1–2 people in every million in Australia.

Read more on myDr website

Memory Problems and Tips - Synapse

Memory problems can occur with most brain disorders. However they are particularly common with traumatic brain injury (TBI).

Read more on Synapse - Australia's Brain Injury Organisation website

Dementia and brain injury - Synapse

Dementia is a category of brain diseases that result in memory loss and deterioration of speech, motor skills and cognitive functioning as it progresses.  

Read more on Synapse - Australia's Brain Injury Organisation website

Idiopathic Intracranial Hypertension - Headache Australia

It is a syndrome of raised intracranial pressure which is more common in women (4-8 times more) and is associated with obesity (+93% of patients are obese).

Read more on Migraine and Headache Australia website


For more information on Alzheimer

Read more on Queensland Health website

Dizziness and vertigo - Better Health Channel

Dizziness is generally treatable and rarely indicates serious brain disease.

Read more on Better Health Channel website

Creutzfeldt - Jakob Disease

Creutzfeldt-Jakob disease (CJD) is a rare degenerative disease that affects brain tissue in humans.

Read more on Queensland Health website

Healthdirect 24hr 7 days a week hotline

24 hour health advice you can count on

1800 022 222

Government Accredited with over 140 information partners

We are a government-funded service, providing quality, approved health information and advice

Australian Government, health department logo ACT Government logo New South Wales government, health department logo Northen Territory Government logo Government of South Australia, health department logo Tasmanian government logo Government of Western Australia, health department logo