What is cytomegalovirus?
Cytomegalovirus (CMV) is a common virus. Most people are exposed to the virus as infants. It is that believed most adults are diagnosed with the virus by age 40. Many people are infected with CMV and don’t know it. That’s because the virus rarely causes symptoms. It usually does not cause long-term problems. However, CMV can cause problems in people who have a weakened immune system. Also, it can cause problems in a newborn if the mother gets the infection during pregnancy.
Symptoms of cytomegalovirus
Usually, CMV does not cause symptoms. Sometimes, it causes mild symptoms. A few people will have symptoms that are similar to the mononucleosis virus. Symptoms of CMV can include:
- sore throat
- swollen lymph nodes
- muscle aches
- loss of appetite
Newborns infected with CMV while in the womb can be very sick when they are born. Symptoms at birth can include:
- jaundice (yellowing of the skin)
- low birth weight
- enlarged spleen
- enlarged liver
People taking immunosuppressant medicines for conditions like human immunodeficiency virus (HIV) or from having an organ transplant may have severe symptoms. Immunosuppressant medicines lower or suppress the immune system. Symptoms of severe CMV include:
- pneumonitis (inflammation of the respiratory tract)
- bleeding ulcers in the esophagus (windpipe) or intestines (stomach region)
- inflammation of the brain
CMV is likely to cause vision problems in people who have weakened immune systems. So if you have certain conditions, such as HIV or AIDS, your doctor may recommend that you visit an eye doctor to check for infection. Let your doctor know if you are having painless, blurry vision (floaters) in one eye, light flashes, or areas of blindness. Also tell your doctor if you are experiencing frequent shortness of breath with flu-like symptoms, or if you are having problems hearing.
What causes cytomegalovirus?
The virus is similar to the viruses that cause chickenpox and mononucleosis. It gets into body fluids, such as saliva, blood, urine, semen, and breast milk. A person can pass the virus onto others when it is active in his or her system. It spreads from one person to another through sexual contact or contact with blood and other body fluids. CMV is rarely spread by blood transfusion or organ transplantation.
If a pregnant woman passes CMV onto her unborn baby, it could cause a miscarriage, stillbirth, or death of the newborn. Newborns who survive are at an increased risk for hearing loss and mental disability. However, only a small percentage of newborns infected with CMV during pregnancy experience problems from the virus. Most are born healthy or with only mild CMV symptoms.
How is cytomegalovirus diagnosed?
CMV is diagnosed with a blood test. If you are pregnant, your doctor may want to test you for CMV. If you do carry the virus, your doctor may suggest a test called amniocentesis. During this test, a needle is inserted into the mother’s uterus to collect a sample of fluid surrounding the baby. The fluid will be sent to a lab for testing.
Can cytomegalovirus be prevented or avoided?
Careful, frequent hand washing with soap and water may help prevent the spread of CMV. Daycare centers are high-risk areas for children 1 to 3 years of age. People caring for someone diagnosed with HIV, AIDS, or with weakened immune systems from organ transplant should wear gloves when dealing with bodily fluids. Avoid kissing and sexual contact with a known infected person. Always practice safe sex by using condoms.
For otherwise healthy people, CMV usually doesn’t require treatment. If your immune system is weakened, your doctor may use a medicine to treat CMV. However, because CMV is a virus, regular antibiotics won’t work. Antiviral drugs are usually prescribed. This slows the virus. However, it cannot cure CMV.
If you are pregnant and your baby has CMV, you doctor will likely check your baby for any health problems once he or she is born so they can be treated early. Treatable symptoms in newborns include pneumonia, hearing loss, and inflammation of the eye.
Living with cytomegalovirus
When the virus is inactive (no signs of symptoms), there is no discomfort. When the virus is active, the symptoms can affect your quality of life. See your doctor for recommendations on ways reduce the discomfort of the symptoms.
Questions to ask your doctor
- Are there any activities I should restrict while I’m sick?
- How long should I keep my child home from school?
- How long will I be contagious?
- I have HIV. Do I need any special treatments?
Copyright © American Academy of Family Physicians
This information provides a general overview and may not apply to everyone. Talk to your family doctor to find out if this information applies to you and to get more information on this subject.