Ribavirin is active in vitro but not in vivo against a number of viruses capable of causing encephalitis. Ribavirin triacetate (RTA), a lipophilic derivative, has been reported to be more effective than ribavirin in protecting animals from encephalitis. By using an influenza A/WSN virus encephalitis model, we demonstrated that RTA administered by small-particle aerosol was able to decrease the death rate and increase the time of survival. To determine if this beneficial effect was due to increased delivery of drug, the pharmacokinetic properties of ribavirin and RTA when administered as an aerosol or by intraperitoneal injection were examined. Aerosol administration of ribavirin or RTA gave significantly higher concentrations of ribavirin in the lungs and serum of mice than did intraperitoneal injection. There was no difference, however, in ribavirin levels when either ribavirin or RTA was administered by small-particle aerosol. In brain tissue, ribavirin concentrations increased with time and did not appear to decrease as rapidly as in lungs and serum. Mean peak ribavirin concentrations in the brain were higher following aerosol administration of ribavirin than RTA, and both were higher than that following intraperitoneal injection of either drug. Administration of ribavirin or RTA by intraperitoneal injection failed to protect mice from a lethal intracerebral inoculation of influenza A/WSN virus, while aerosolized RTA did protect mice. The pharmacokinetics of ribavirin in brain tissue following aerosol administration of either drug did not explain the advantage of RTA over ribavirin in protecting mice from intracerebral infection with influenza A/WSN virus.