Medically Reviewed By William C. Lloyd III, MD, FACS
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What is cytomegalovirus?

Cytomegalovirus is a virus belonging to the herpesvirus family that commonly infects humans. Although cytomegalovirus infections are very common, most people who are otherwise healthy who have the infection do not feel sick or even notice the infection. In fact, the clinical course of cytomegalovirus infection usually hinges on the host: healthy, unhealthy, or immunocompromised. Some individuals, particularly those whose immune systems are weakened, develop symptoms that resemble mononucleosis. People whose immune systems are weakened are also more likely to develop cytomegalovirus infections of the digestive tract, eyes, or lungs. It is estimated that between 50% and 80% of people in the United States have had a cytomegalovirus infection by the age of 40(Source: NIH).

Cytomegalovirus infections in otherwise healthy individuals typically resolve on their own without treatment, but it can take weeks or months for the symptoms to go away completely. Fevers often resolve in 10 days, but if the spleen and lymph nodes become swollen, these swellings can take about a month to go away. Fatigue may persist for an additional few months.

Cytomegalovirus spreads directly through person-to-person contact and indirectly through the air when an infected person coughs or sneezes. It can be spread through saliva and other body fluids. Cytomegalovirus can also be passed from a pregnant woman to her unborn baby. Congenital cytomegalovirus infection passed from a pregnant mother to her baby can cause long-term problems, including growth disturbances, vision or hearing loss, or mental disability. Cytomegalovirus  infection in the newborn can be fatal. Cytomegalovirus is one of the most common viral infections present at birth: every year, approximately one in every 750 babies born in the United States has the infection (Source: CDC).

Most cytomegalovirus infections do not produce symptoms; however, some people develop severe infections that can be life threatening. Seek immediate medical care (call 911) for serious symptoms, such as high fever, severe abdominal pain, confusion, lethargy, loss or change in level of consciousness, or seizure.

What are the symptoms of cytomegalovirus?

Most people who have a cytomegalovirus infection do not experience any symptoms at all, although you may develop symptoms such as fatigue, fever, sore throat, headache, and swollen glands. People with weakened immune systems are more likely to have symptoms, which may be severe and can affect different organs in the body.

Common symptoms of cytomegalovirus

Although most people with cytomegalovirus do not have symptoms, if you do experience symptoms, they may be similar to mononucleosis. Common symptoms of cytomegalovirus include:

Serious symptoms that might indicate a life-threatening condition

Although cytomegalovirus infection typically resolves on its own, complications can occur. In some cases, cytomegalovirus infection can be life threatening. Seek immediate medical care (call 911) if you, or someone you are with, have any of these life-threatening symptoms including:

  • Change in level of consciousness or alertness, such as passing out or unresponsiveness

  • Change in mental status or sudden behavior change, such as confusion, delirium, lethargy, hallucinations and delusions

  • Chest pain or pressure

  • High fever (higher than 101 degrees Fahrenheit)

  • Seizure

  • Yellowing of the skin and whites of the eyes (jaundice)

What causes cytomegalovirus?

Cytomegalovirus is a member of the herpesvirus family. It is contagious and spreads from person to person, but most people never develop symptoms. It can be spread through all bodily fluids and can also spread from a pregnant mother to her baby.

What are the risk factors for cytomegalovirus?

A number of factors increase your risk of developing cytomegalovirus infection. Not all people with risk factors will get cytomegalovirus. Risk factors for cytomegalovirus include:

  • Attendance or work in a daycare or school setting
  • Close contact with an infected person
  • Sexual contact with an infected partner
  • Weakened immune system

Reducing your risk of cytomegalovirus

You may be able to lower your risk of cytomegalovirus by:

  • Avoiding contact with the saliva or urine of children
  • Cleaning surfaces that might have come in contact with the saliva or urine of children
  • Washing your hands frequently with soap and water

How is cytomegalovirus treated?

Cytomegalovirus typically resolves on its own and rarely requires treatment. However, your doctor might prescribe antiviral medications if you have a weakened immune system.

Antiviral medications used to treat cytomegalovirus

Antiviral medications used to treat cytomegalovirus include:

  • Cidofovir (Vistide)

  • Foscarnet (Foscavir)

  • Ganciclovir (Cytovene)

  • Valganciclovir (Valcyte)

What you can do to improve your cytomegalovirus symptoms

During your infection and recovery, there are things you can do to improve your symptoms including:

  • Gargling with salt water

  • Getting plenty of rest

  • Taking over-the-counter pain relief medications, such as acetaminophen (Tylenol) or ibuprofen (Advil, Motrin)

What are the potential complications of cytomegalovirus?

Complications of cytomegalovirus are rare in healthy individuals and occur more commonly in people with weakened immune systems or in infants born with cytomegalovirus infection. Complications of cytomegalovirus include:

  • Bladder or bowel dysfunction

  • Developmental delays and failure to thrive

  • Encephalitis (inflammation and swelling of the brain due to a viral infection or other causes)

  • Esophagitis (inflammation and infection of the esophagus)

  • Gastroenteritis (inflammation and infection of the stomach and intestines)

  • Guillain-Barré syndrome (autoimmune nerve disorder)

  • Hearing or vision loss

  • Myocarditis (infection of the middle layer of the heart wall)

  • Pericarditis (infection of the lining that surrounds the heart)

  • Pneumonia

  • Retinitis (inflammation and infection of the retina of the eye)

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Medical Reviewer: William C. Lloyd III, MD, FACS
Last Review Date: 2021 Jan 16
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THIS TOOL DOES NOT PROVIDE MEDICAL ADVICE. It is intended for informational purposes only. It is not a substitute for professional medical advice, diagnosis or treatment. Never ignore professional medical advice in seeking treatment because of something you have read on the site. If you think you may have a medical emergency, immediately call your doctor or dial 911.
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