Cytomegalovirus, or CMV, is a herpesvirus infection that can affect many areas of the body including the eyes, brain, and other internal organs. It is similar to the mononucleosis virus. In most people, the virus doesn’t present with any symptoms, but when symptoms do appear, they tend to mimic a flu or cold. In those with weakened immune function, however, the virus can be severe and may even lead to blindness.
With a case of CMV, the virus stays within the body for the rest of one’s life; however, most people aren’t aware that they’ve contracted it at all because it rarely affects healthy people negatively. CMV is so common among adults that roughly 60–90% of all adults have been shown to have the infection at one point or another.
How do you get cytomegalovirus?
Cytomegalovirus is spread through bodily secretions such as blood, saliva, urine, semen, and breast milk. It can be transferred through both sexual and non-sexual contact. People who are pregnant and have the virus can unknowingly pass it on to their nursing child through feeding, or even while the baby is still in the womb. If this occurs, the infant can suffer from serious symptoms.
What are the symptoms of CMV?
The initial symptoms of CMV are typically mild or even non-existent. In healthy individuals who do experience symptoms, they may present similarly to the common cold or flu and include:
- Sore throat
- Muscle aches
The virus affects people with weakened immune systems much worse than it would healthy adults. People who have had an organ, bone marrow, or stem cell transplant may experience worse symptoms, as well as those who have other infectious viruses such as HIV.
Symptoms in this demographic of people include:
- Retinitis that may lead to blindness
- Life-threatening pneumonia
- Nervous system issues that can lead to chronic headaches, confusion, and leg weakness
- Liver inflammation
- Intestinal obstruction
- Difficulty and painful swallowing
- Abdominal pain
- Yellow skin
- Watery or bloody diarrhea
Those with compromised immune systems may also face health issues with other parts of the body including:
- Gall bladder
The more severe symptoms of CMV can become life-threatening. In infants or pregnant people with the virus, the symptoms can be very dangerous. They include:
- Increased miscarriage risk
- Increased risk for stillbirth
- Premature birth
- Low birth weight
- Enlarged liver with poor function
- A purple skin rash
- Microencephaly (abnormally small head)
- Enlargement of the spleen
- Blood disorders
To test infants for the virus, doctors will address any symptoms such as low birth weight or jaundice by doing a blood test. Since congenital CMV can mimic a variety of other conditions, doctors try to either confirm the disease or rule it out as a cause for symptoms. In healthy adults, tests are rarely taken because of a lack of symptoms. In the instance that a test is needed, it will be a blood test.
For immunocompromised individuals, both a physical exam and a blood test will need to be performed to diagnose the virus. In some cases, doctors may take a biopsy of the specific organ that is affected to help confirm the presence of CMV.
How long do CMV symptoms last?
The duration of symptoms will largely depend on who is affected. For infants, prognosis is difficult to estimate. Some infants will die after contracting the infection, while others may recover completely. In healthy adults, the virus will typically remain inactive after the initial two to three weeks, after which symptoms are no longer an issue.
For those with weakened immune systems, who have more difficulty getting over viral infections, CMV can last months or even years following the infection. It may even become a lifetime condition that will need to be managed with the use of antiviral medications.
How do you get rid of cytomegalovirus?
Unfortunately, you cannot simply get rid of CMV. Since the virus is embedded in tissues for life, it can be reactivated at any time and cause disease. The good news is that in most cases, it typically does not pose any health risks, and if it does, the symptoms tend to be short-lived and mild in nature.
For those suffering from congenital CMV or those with immunosuppression, the virus can be much more difficult to manage. Therefore, the best way to deal with CMV is through prevention.
To help lower your chances of contracting the virus, practicing several habits can help reduce the risk. Preventative measures include:
- Washing your hands regularly with soap and water
- Avoiding kissing young children or coming into contact with their tears or saliva
- Avoiding sharing glasses or other kitchen utensils
- Ensuring countertops and toys are cleaned and sanitized
- Disposing of diapers and similar items appropriately
- Using a condom during sexual interactions
Cytomegalovirus isn’t generally dangerous, though it can be in certain instances. Knowing how to protect yourself from getting the virus, even if you’re healthy, will help limit the spread.