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Systematic (IUPAC) name
CAS number 59277-89-3
ATC code J05AB01 D06BB03 S01AD03
PubChem 2022
DrugBank APRD00567
Chemical data
Formula C8H11N5O3 
Mol. mass 225.21 g/mol
Synonyms acycloguanosine
Physical data
Melt. point 256.5 °C (494 °F)
Pharmacokinetic data
Bioavailability 10–20% (oral)
Protein binding 9-33%
Metabolism Viral thymidine kinase
Half life 2.2–20 hours
Excretion Renal
Therapeutic considerations
Pregnancy cat.

B3 (Au), B (U.S.)

Legal status

unscheduled/S4 (Au), POM (UK)

Routes IV, oral, topical
400 mg pills of acyclovir

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Aciclovir (INN) (IPA: [eɪˈsaɪklovir]) or acyclovir (USAN, former BAN), chemical name acycloguanosine, is a guanine analogue antiviral drug, marketed under trade names such as Zovirax and Zovir (GSK). One of the most commonly-used antiviral drugs, it is primarily used for the treatment of herpes simplex virus infections, as well as in the treatment of herpes zoster (shingles).

Aciclovir was seen as the start of a new era in antiviral therapy, as it is extremely selective and low in cytotoxicity. Pharmacologist Gertrude B. Elion was awarded the 1988 Nobel Prize in Medicine, partly for the development of aciclovir.


Mechanism of action

Aciclovir differs from previous nucleoside analogues in that it contains only a partial nucleoside structure: the sugar ring is replaced by an open-chain structure. It is selectively converted into acyclo-guanosine monophosphate (acyclo-GMP) by viral thymidine kinase, which is far more effective (3000 times) in phosphorylation than cellular thymidine kinase. Subsequently, the monophosphate form is further phosphorylated into the active triphosphate form, acyclo-guanosine triphosphate (acyclo-GTP), by cellular kinases. Acyclo-GTP is a very potent inhibitor of viral DNA polymerase; it has approximately 100 times greater affinity for viral than cellular polymerase. As a substrate, acyclo-GMP is incorporated into viral DNA, resulting in chain termination. It has also been shown that viral enzymes cannot remove acyclo-GMP from the chain, which results in inhibition of further activity of DNA polymerase. Acyclo-GTP is fairly rapidly metabolised within the cell, possibly by cellular phosphatases.

In sum, aciclovir can be considered a prodrug: it is administered in an inactive (or less active form) and is metabolised into a more active species after administration.


Aciclovir is active against most species in the herpesvirus family. In descending order of activity:[1]

Activity is predominantly against HSV, and to a lesser extent VZV. It is only of limited efficacy against EBV and CMV. It is inactive against latent viruses in nerve ganglia.

To date, resistance to aciclovir has not been clinically significant. Mechanisms of resistance in HSV include deficient viral thymidine kinase; and mutations to viral thymidine kinase and/or DNA polymerase, altering substrate sensitivity.[2]


Aciclovir is poorly water soluble and has poor oral bioavailability (10–20%), hence intravenous administration is necessary if high concentrations are required. When orally administered, peak plasma concentration occurs after 1–2 hours. Aciclovir has a high distribution rate, only 30% is protein-bound in plasma. The elimination half-life of aciclovir is approximately 3 hours. It is renally excreted, partly by glomerular filtration and partly by tubular secretion.

Clinical use


Aciclovir is indicated for the treatment of HSV and VZV infections, including:[3]

It has been claimed that the evidence for the effectiveness of topically applied cream for recurrent labial outbreaks is weak.[4] Likewise oral therapy for episodes is inappropriate for most non-immunocompromised patients, whilst there is evidence for oral prophylactic role in preventing recurrences.[5]

Dosage forms

Aciclovir is commonly marketed as tablets (200 mg, 400 mg and 800 mg), topical cream (5%), intravenous injection (25 mg/mL) and ophthalmic ointment (3%). Cream preparations are used primarily for labial herpes simplex. The intravenous injection is used when high concentrations of aciclovir are required. The ophthalmic ointment preparation is only used for herpes simplex keratitis .

Adverse effects

Systemic therapy

Common adverse drug reactions (≥1% of patients) associated with systemic aciclovir therapy (oral or IV) include: nausea, vomiting, diarrhea and/or headache. In high doses, hallucinations have been reported. Infrequent adverse effects (0.1–1% of patients) include: agitation, vertigo, confusion, dizziness, oedema, arthralgia, sore throat, constipation, abdominal pain, rash and/or weakness. Rare adverse effects (<0.1% of patients) include: coma, seizures, neutropenia, leukopenia, crystalluria, anorexia, fatigue, hepatitis, Stevens-Johnson syndrome, toxic epidermal necrolysis and/or anaphylaxis.[3]

Additional common adverse effects, when aciclovir is administered IV, include encephalopathy (1% of patients) and injection site reactions. The injection formulation is alkaline (pH 11), and extravasation may cause local tissue pain and irritation.[3] Renal impairment has been reported when aciclovir is given in large, fast doses intravenously, due to the crystallisation of aciclovir in the kidneys.

Topical therapy

Aciclovir topical cream is commonly associated (≥1% of patients) with: dry or flaking skin and/or transient stinging/burning sensations. Infrequent adverse effects include erythema and/or itch.[3]

When applied to the eye, aciclovir is commonly associated (≥1% of patients) with transient mild stinging. Infrequently (0.1–1% of patients), ophthalmic aciclovir is associated with superficial punctate keratitis and/or allergic reactions.[3]


Since aciclovir can be incorporated also into the cellular DNA, it is a chromosome mutagen, therefore, its use should be avoided during pregnancy. However it has not been shown to cause any teratogenic nor carcinogenic effects. The acute toxicity (LD50) of aciclovir when given orally is greater than 1 g/kg, due to the low oral bioavailability. Single cases have been reported, where extremely high (up to 80 mg/kg) doses have been accidentally given intravenously without causing any major adverse effects.


  1. O'Brien JJ, Campoli-Richards DM. Acyclovir. An updated review of its antiviral activity, pharmacokinetic properties and therapeutic efficacy. Drugs 1989;37(3):233-309. PMID 2653790
  2. Sweetman S, editor. Martindale: The complete drug reference. 34th ed. London: Pharmaceutical Press; 2004. ISBN 0-85369-550-4
  3. 3.0 3.1 3.2 3.3 3.4 Rossi S, editor. Australian Medicines Handbook 2006. Adelaide: Australian Medicines Handbook; 2006. ISBN 0-9757919-2-3
  4. Graham Worrall (6 Jul 1996). "Evidence for efficacy of topical acyclovir in recurrent herpes labialis is weak". BMJ 313: 46.- Letter
  5. Graham Worrall (6 Jan 1996). "Acyclovir in recurrent herpes labialis". BMJ 312: 6. - Editorial

Further reading

  • Harvey Stewart C. in Remington’s Pharmaceutical Sciences 18th edition: (ed. Gennard, Alfonso R.) Mack Publishing Company, 1990. ISBN 0-912734-04-3.
  • Huovinen P., Valtonen V. in Kliininen Farmakologia (ed. Neuvonen et al.). Kandidaattikustannus Oy, 1994. ISBN 951-8951-09-8.
  • Périgaud C., Gosselin G., Imbach J. -L.: Nucleoside analogues as chemotherapeutic agents: a review. Nucleosides and nucleotides 1992; 11(2-4)
  • Rang H.P., Dale M.M., Ritter J.M.: Pharmacology, 3rd edition. Pearson Professional Ltd, 1995. 2003 (5th) edition ISBN 0-443-07145-4; 2001 (4th) edition ISBN 0-443-06574-8; 1990 edition ISBN 0-443-03407-9.