Varicella zoster virus and giant cell arteritis

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Purpose of review

Giant cell arteritis (GCA) is a serious disease and the most common cause of vasculitis in the elderly. Here, studies describing the recent discovery of varicella zoster virus (VZV) in the temporal arteries of patients with GCA are reviewed.

Recent findings

GCA is characterized by severe headache/head pain and scalp tenderness. Many patients also have a history of vision loss, jaw claudication, polymyalgia rheumatica, fever, night sweats, weight loss, and fatigue. The erythrocyte sedimentation rate and C-reactive protein are usually elevated. Diagnosis is confirmed by temporal artery biopsy, which reveals vessel wall damage and inflammation, with multinucleated giant cells and/or epithelioid macrophages. Skip lesions are common. Importantly, temporal artery biopsies are pathologically negative in many clinically suspect cases. The present review highlights recent virological findings in temporal arteries from patients with pathologically verified GCA and in temporal arteries from patients who manifest clinical and laboratory features of GCA but whose temporal artery biopsies are pathologically negative for GCA. Virological analysis revealed that VZV is present in most GCA-positive and GCA-negative temporal artery biopsies, particularly in skip areas that correlate with adjacent GCA disease.


The presence of VZV in GCA-positive and GCA-negative temporal arteries reflects the possible role of VZV in triggering the immunopathology of GCA and indicates that both groups of patients should be treated with antivirals in addition to corticosteroids. Whether oral antiviral agents and steroids are as effective as intravenous acyclovir and steroids, and the dosage and duration of treatment, remain to be determined.

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