What is cytomegalovirus Symptoms, infection and treatment explained

The U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) has advised people to be wary of cytomegalovirus (CMV) during the holiday season.

CMV is a virus common in people of all ages that is usually not harmful, although it is associated with birth defects in babies born with it.

Nearly one in three children in the United States is already infected by the age of 5, and more than half of adults have it by the age of 40, according to the CDC.

Once a person is infected with CMV, they carry the virus for life. Most people with CMV have no symptoms and may not even know they have the virus at all. The immune system of a healthy person usually stops the virus from causing disease, says the CDC.

When symptoms appear, healthy people may experience fever, sore throat, fatigue, swollen glands, or muscle pain, according to the CDC and Mayo Clinic.

However, in people with weakened immune systems, CMV can cause more serious symptoms that can affect the eyes, lungs, liver, esophagus, stomach, and intestines.

Additionally, babies born with CMV can have problems with the brain, liver, spleen, lung, and growth, a common problem being hearing loss. The CDC says CMV is the most common infectious cause of birth defects in the United States, and one in five babies born with this virus will have birth defects or other long-term health problems.

CMV is transmitted through bodily fluids such as saliva, urine, blood, tears, semen, and breast milk. As such, it can be transferred between people through contact with saliva or urine, through sexual contact, through breastfeeding, or through organ transplantation or blood transfusion. It can be diagnosed by a blood, urine or saliva test.

According to the UK’s National Health Service (NHS), CMV is transmitted when it is ‘active’, such as when someone first catches it (children often get it in nurseries) or when ‘they get reinfected with a different variant, or when reactivated in the body due to a weakened immune system. Pregnant women can pass an “active” CMV infection to their unborn baby.

CMV can sometimes go from an active stage to a dormant stage, although in healthy people it usually stays dormant, according to the Mayo Clinic.

In a tweet published on Wednesday, the CDC said people can avoid CMV by not sharing cups or other items that may contain saliva.

Additionally, the Mayo Clinic states that people should be careful with their hygiene, such as avoiding kissing a child on the lips, “especially important if you are pregnant.” It is also advisable to wash your hands often and well with soap and water for 15 to 20 seconds.

You can find more information about prevention on the CDC and Mayo Clinic websites.

Treatments are available for people with CMV, although healthy people usually do not need them.

Babies with CMV at birth, for example, may benefit from antiviral drugs like valganciclovir that can improve developmental outcomes, says the CDC, although this can have serious side effects.

Research is underway to characterize the impact of CMV on various populations and to assess long-term outcomes in children born with it.

Moderna CEO Stéphane Bancel previously said News week that Moderna considered developing a vaccine against CMV.

An archive photo shows someone washing their hands. The Mayo Clinic says that careful personal hygiene, such as washing your hands thoroughly with soap and water and avoiding contact with saliva, can help reduce the risk of spreading CMV.
Alex Raths / Getty

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