Acute varicella zoster encephalitis without evidence of primary vasculopathy in a case-series of 20 patients

Clin Microbiol Infect. 2012 Aug;18(8):808-19. doi: 10.1111/j.1469-0691.2011.03705.x. Epub 2011 Nov 15.


Varicella zoster virus (VZV) is a leading cause of acute viral encephalitis but little is known about its clinical, biological and imaging features. Furthermore, the most favourable treatment regimen has not been determined. We studied a prospective cohort of 20 HIV-negative patients presenting with acute VZV encephalitis caused by primary infection or reactivation. VZV was identified in 16 of 20 cases by PCR detection of the DNA in the cerebrospinal fluid. The four remaining cases occurred during or soon after a VZV rash. The median age of the 17 adults was 76 (19-86) years; the three other patients were children (0.5-5 years). Three patients were immunocompromised. Nine adult patients presented with a rash. Eighteen patients presented with fever and an acute encephalitic syndrome: diffuse brain dysfunction, focal neurological signs, seizures and cranial nerve palsies. Three patients presented with either ventricular or subdural haemorrhage, one with myelitis, and one with asymptomatic stenosis of the middle cerebral artery. The imaging was either normal or revealed non-specific abnormalities such as cortical atrophy but no evidence of stroke. All patients were given acyclovir at various dosages and durations but the case fatality rate remained high (15%) and sequelae were frequently observed either at discharge or at follow-up 3 years later.

MeSH terms

  • Acyclovir / administration & dosage
  • Adult
  • Aged
  • Aged, 80 and over
  • Antiviral Agents / administration & dosage
  • Brain / diagnostic imaging
  • Cerebrospinal Fluid / virology
  • Child, Preschool
  • Cohort Studies
  • DNA, Viral / genetics
  • DNA, Viral / isolation & purification
  • Encephalitis, Varicella Zoster / diagnosis*
  • Encephalitis, Varicella Zoster / mortality
  • Encephalitis, Varicella Zoster / pathology*
  • Exanthema / pathology
  • Exanthema / virology
  • Female
  • Herpesvirus 3, Human / genetics
  • Herpesvirus 3, Human / isolation & purification
  • Humans
  • Infant
  • Infant, Newborn
  • Magnetic Resonance Imaging
  • Male
  • Middle Aged
  • Polymerase Chain Reaction
  • Prospective Studies
  • Radiography
  • Survival Analysis
  • Treatment Outcome


  • Antiviral Agents
  • DNA, Viral
  • Acyclovir