Acyclovir-induced neurotoxicity with a positive cerebrospinal fluid varicella zoster PCR result creating a management dilemma: A case report

Kelli M. Robertson, Christopher L. Harvey, John M. Cunningham

Research output: Contribution to journalArticlepeer-review

3 Scopus citations

Abstract

Background: Varicella zoster virus central nervous system infections can present as aseptic meningitis, encephalitis, myelitis, and vasculopathy. Diagnosis is based on identification of varicella zoster virus deoxyribonucleic acid (DNA) in the cerebrospinal fluid by polymerase chain reaction. Therapy for these infections is acyclovir or valacyclovir. However, acyclovir can have neurotoxic effects that can mimic the presentation of varicella zoster virus central nervous system disease. We present a rare presentation of a patient who had acyclovir-induced neurotoxicity who also had a false-positive cerebrospinal fluid varicella zoster virus polymerase chain reaction result, creating a management dilemma. We review the clinical characteristics of acyclovir-induced neurotoxicity. In addition, we present the diagnostic characteristics of the cerebrospinal fluid viral polymerase chain reaction and alternative methods to diagnose central nervous system varicella zoster virus disease. Case presentation: A 68-year-old Hispanic man with end-stage renal disease was diagnosed with cutaneous zoster at an outside facility and was started on acyclovir 4 days prior to admission. His family noted worsening confusion, agitation, speech difficulty, and hallucinations, leading them to bring him to the emergency department. His cerebrospinal fluid varicella zoster virus polymerase chain reaction result was positive, indicating the presence of varicella zoster virus deoxyribonucleic acid in the cerebrospinal fluid; however, he did not have cerebrospinal fluid pleocytosis typical of varicella zoster virus meningoencephalitis. Pharmacy records from the outside hospital revealed supratherapeutic acyclovir dosing. This led to a diagnostic dilemma over whether this patient had varicella zoster virus encephalitis or acyclovir-induced neurotoxicity. Acyclovir was discontinued, and the patient underwent two sessions of hemodialysis to remove acyclovir, which led to a full neurologic recovery. Conclusions: Varicella zoster virus encephalitis and acyclovir-induced neurotoxicity can have similar presentations. Varicella zoster virus deoxyribonucleic acid can be present in the cerebrospinal fluid during active cutaneous zoster in the absence of central nervous system disease. If concern for central nervous system varicella zoster virus disease remains high, additional testing with cerebrospinal fluid serology can be performed. Compared with central nervous system varicella zoster virus disease, acyclovir-induced neurotoxicity has a more predictable clinical resolution once drug therapy is discontinued or the patient undergoes hemodialysis, which can aid in making the diagnosis. Clinicians should be aware of this rare and dangerous complication of acyclovir. In addition, clinicians should have an understanding of the diagnostic limitations of cerebrospinal fluid viral polymerase chain reaction and have alternative approaches available to diagnose central nervous system varicella zoster virus disease when it is suspected.

Original languageEnglish (US)
Article number156
JournalJournal of Medical Case Reports
Volume14
Issue number1
DOIs
StatePublished - Sep 18 2020
Externally publishedYes

Keywords

  • Acyclovir
  • Case report
  • Encephalitis
  • Neurotoxicity
  • Varicella

ASJC Scopus subject areas

  • General Medicine

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