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Cytomegalovirus (CMV) Infection

by Craig R. Pringle, BSc, PhD

Cytomegalovirus infection is a common herpesvirus infection with a wide range of symptoms: from no symptoms to fever and fatigue (resembling infectious mononucleosis) to severe symptoms involving the eyes, brain, or other internal organs.

  • This virus is easily spread through sexual and nonsexual contact with body secretions.

  • Most people have no symptoms, but some feel ill and have a fever, and people with a weakened immune system or an infected fetus can have serious symptoms, including blindness.

  • Doctors may diagnose the infection by culturing a sample of infected body fluid, such as urine.

  • Often, no treatment is required, but if the infection is severe, antiviral drugs may be used.

Infection with cytomegalovirus (CMV, herpesvirus 5—see Herpesvirus Infection Overview) is very common. Blood tests show that 60 to 90% of adults have had a CMV infection at some time.

CMV spreads very easily. Infected people may shed the virus in their urine or saliva for months. The virus is also excreted in cervical mucus, semen, stool, and breast milk. Thus, the virus is spread through sexual and nonsexual contact. If a pregnant woman is infected, the fetus may acquire the infection during the pregnancy, or the baby may acquire the infection during delivery. CMV infection may develop in people who receive a transfusion of infected blood or an infected organ transplant.

CMV may cause symptoms soon after infection. Also, it can remain dormant (inactive) in various tissues for life. Various stimuli can reactivate the dormant CMV, resulting in disease.

Usually, this infection causes no symptoms. Serious infections typically develop only in infants infected before birth (see Some Infections of Newborns) and in people with a weakened immune system—for example, people with AIDS or those who have received an organ transplant. People who have received an organ transplant are particularly susceptible to CMV infection because they are given drugs that suppress the immune system (immunosuppressants) to prevent rejection of the transplant. In people with a weakened immune system, disease often results from reactivation of the dormant virus.

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