Litchi encephalitis (chamki bukhar): Facts and Myths
1. Lychee (or litchi) is a fruit, mostly grown in China, India and rest of Southeast Asia. Fruit ripening coincides with Indian summer (May-June).
There is a concern that eating litchi can cause brain fever and death.
2. Litchi does not cause “encephalitis” (brain fever).
No infective agent (virus or other pathogen) has been isolated from CSF or blood of any victim of litchi encephalitis. Also, it does not spread from person-to-person (what is expected in an infection)
3. How is litchi associated with litchi #encephalitis?
Hypoglycin A and Methylene cyclo propyl glycine (MCPG), more commonly found in unripe litchi and depletes glucose reserves in the body. More fatal for under- or malnourished children, who eat unripe litchi on empty stomach.
4. So, the correct term is metabolic (hypoglycemic encephalopathy), rather than encephalitis. Symptoms include fever, confusion, disorientation, convulsions, coma and death (in severe cases).
5. The disease is almost exclusively seen in children aged 1-7 years, who eat litchi during day time, skip the dinner and go to sleep. They wake up next morning with severe symptoms as described above.
6. Blood sugar is found to be low in most of these children (<70 mg%).
The only way to save their lives is by giving glucose (intravenous 10% dextrose) as early as possible (preferably within 4 hours).
7. How to prevent litchi encephalitis?
*Eat litchi in moderation, especially in case of children. Adults can cope with higher amounts of litchi without any problem.
*Avoid eating semi-ripe or unripe litchi,
*No child should be allowed to skip dinner before sleep.
8. Litchi is safe for pregnant women and diabetics too, when eaten in moderation.
9. Litchi contains vitamin C, vitamin D, many minerals and antioxidants and has been considered a superfood by nutritionists.
So, enjoy your litchi without any fear or guilt.
10. Litchi is fast perishable.
It can be kept in fridge for 5-7 days and in open for 2-3 days, beyond which it may not be safe for consumption.
Dr Sudhir Kumar MD DM