Purpose of review
Varicella zoster virus (VZV) causes varicella, establishes latency, then reactivates to produce herpes zoster. VZV reactivation can also cause central nervous system (CNS) disease with or without rash. Herein, we review these CNS diseases, pathogenesis, diagnosis, and treatment.
The most common CNS manifestation of VZV infection is vasculopathy that presents as headache, cognitive decline, and/or focal neurological deficits. VZV vasculopathy has also been associated with cerebral amyloid angiopathy and moyamoya syndrome. Rarely, VZV will produce a meningitis, encephalitis, cerebellitis, and myelopathy. Pathogenic mechanisms include direct VZV infection of affected tissue, persistent inflammation, and/or virus-induced hypercoagulability. Diagnosis is confirmed by the temporal association of rash to disease onset, intrathecal synthesis of anti-VZV antibodies, and/or the presence of VZV DNA in CSF. Most cases respond to intravenous acyclovir with corticosteroids.
VZV produces a wide spectrum of CNS disorders that may be missed as some cases do not have an associated rash or a CSF pleocytosis. Clinicians must be vigilant in including VZV in their differential diagnosis of CNS infections as VZV is a ubiquitous pathogen; importantly, VZV CNS infections are treatable with intravenous acyclovir therapy and corticosteroids.