Cytomegalovirus (CMV): What It Is, Causes, Symptoms & Treatment

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Cytomegalovirus (CMV) is a common infectious disease that tends to be very mild in most people.

However, there are cases where it is very dangerous. Let’s explore more about what cytomegalovirus is, including its causes, symptoms, treatment and who is at most risk of complications with this virus.

What is cytomegalovirus?

Cytomegalovirus is a common infectious disease that is related to the herpes virus. Generally, CMV causes few, if any, symptoms in healthy individuals.

It may surprise you how common CMV is. According to Cleveland Clinic, in the United States and Canada alone, half of all people will have CMV by the time they are 40, and 90% will by the time they are 80.

According to a recent report in Reviews in Medical Virology, CMV "infection does not usually produce symptoms when it causes primary infection, reinfection or reactivation because these three types of infection are all controlled by the normal immune system. However, CMV becomes an important pathogen in individuals whose immune system is immature or compromised, such as the unborn child.”

In addition to unborn babies infected with CMV (known as congenital CMV), another group at risk of serious outcomes is those who are compromised from AIDS, chemotherapy and bone marrow or organ transplants.

Cytomegalovirus causes:

CMV can go dormant in your body and reactivate at any time. When the virus reactivates, the Mayo Clinic says it is possible for you to pass it to others through body fluids, including:

  • Blood
  • Urine
  • Saliva
  • Breast milk
  • Tears
  • Semen and vaginal fluids

According to Mayo Clinic, some specific ways it is spread include:

  • Touching your eyes, nose or mouth after touching the body fluids of an infected person
  • Sexual contact with an infected person
  • Breast milk of an infected mother
  • Medical procedures such as organ, bone marrow or stem cell transplantation or blood transfusions
  • An infected mother can pass the virus to her baby before or during birth

Cytomegalovirus symptoms:

Normally, cytomegalovirus infection symptoms are either nonexistent, or very mild, the Cleveland Clinic says. For those people, the symptoms may include:

  • Fatigue
  • Fever
  • Sore throat
  • Muscle aches
  • Headache
  • Rash
  • Swollen lymph nodes

In patients who have a compromised immune system due to bone marrow or organ transplants, the symptoms are more severe and may include:

  • Fever
  • Fatigue
  • Shortness of breath, cough, muscle aches and weakness (CMV pneumonitis)
  • Blurry vision or loss of vision (CMV retinitis)
  • Stomach pain, blood in your stool, nausea, vomiting and diarrhea (CMV gastritis or colitis)
  • Seizures, headaches and confusion (CMV encephalitis)

When a newborn has been infected with CMV in utero, symptoms may or may not be seen at birth, but may show up later. These symptoms include:

  • Low birth weight or poor weight gain
  • Anemia
  • Yellow skin and eyes
  • Red spots of blood under the skin that look like a rash
  • Enlarged liver
  • Enlarged spleen
  • Small head size
  • Seizures
  • Hearing loss
  • Delays or differences in motor skill development

Cytomegalovirus treatment

In patients with a good immune system, no medical treatment is usually needed. However, in patients with compromised immune systems they may need supportive treatments as well as antivirals, according to StatPearls. Some of those used include:

  • ganciclovir (Zirgan),
  • valganciclovir (Valcyte)

In newborns with CMV, these antivirals may help decrease further damage from the virus, but it can’t undo the damage already done. Babies with CMV should be treated with occupational and speech therapy, to help them overcome as many of the effects as possible.

Living with cytomegalovirus

For healthy individuals, living with CMV means resting and taking care of yourself when you experience the initial infection. It is also important to wash your hands and avoid situations where you may pass the infection to someone else.

For those with compromised immune systems, you must stay in close contact with your physician. If you are able to be home, your physician will give you specific things to watch for. You may be prescribed an antiviral to prevent potentially serious effects of this virus.

If your baby has CMV, your pediatrician will help you coordinate the needed treatments and resources to help your child be as healthy as possible.


Cleveland Clinic: Cytomegalovirus (CMV)

Reviews in Medical Virology: Estimation of Worldwide Seroprevalence of Cytomegalovirus: A Systematic Review and Meta-analysis

Mayo Clinic: Cytomegalovirus (CMV) Infection

StatPearls: Cytomegalovirus

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