What is Cytomegalovirus? Characteristics of This Largely Hidden Viral Infection


Cytomegalovirus is a virus which rarely comes to public attention and is extremely common, with some estimates suggesting that between 50% and 80% of the population are infected. The reason that it goes pretty much unnoticed is that for the vast majority of people it is harmless.

CMV – image by wikipedia.org

Cytomegalovirus (CMV) is one of the herpes group of viruses, sharing a number of characteristics with chicken pox, the various herpes viruses and the Epstein-Barr virus, which causes glandular fever (infectious mononucleosis). Infection with herpes viruses tends to be lifelong.

How is CMV Caught?

Given the frequency of the infection in the general population, it is clearly transmitted very easily – most people will pick it up in childhood. It can be transmitted through all bodily fluids: saliva, blood, semen, vaginal secretions and breast milk.

CMV transmission – image by slidesahre.net

Signs and Symptoms of CMV Infection

Although CMV infection is rarely, if ever, eradicated from the body, the immune system keeps it in check; only when immunity is compromised does the virus replicate and cause symptoms. In people with normal immune systems the following are the usual manifestations:

  • asymptomatic – no symptoms at all (by far the most common).
image by skagitcounty.blog
  • fever, which is usually mild.
  • swollen glands – in young people and adolescents, CMV can produce symptoms very like infectious mononucleosis, including swollen glands in the neck and groin, fever and sore throat.

Complications of Cytomegalovirus Infection

In those with compromised immune systems, the features can be more severe with the virus affecting many organs. Immunity can be lowered for a number of reasons, such as fighting off an existing infection so there are just not enough resources to go around, HIV, which attacks the immune system itself, inadequate nutrition and immuno-suppressant drugs as used in organ transplants.

Immunity can be lowered for a number of reasons – image by skinkraft.com

Although uncommon, it’s possible for many organs and systems to be affected in the following ways:

  • nervous system – encephalitis, Guillain-Barre syndrome.
  • liver – impaired function, hepatitis
  • blood – haemolytic anaemia, platelet deficiency
  • heart – pericarditis
  • lungs – pneumonia
  • intestinal tract – ulceration
It may effect many organs – image by theconversation.com

Cytomegalovirus in Pregnancy

Cytomegalovirus is the biggest cause of acquired infection in unborn babies. It usually occurs when the mother has not previously been infected – those with the infection of course have immunity to it and pass this on to the child.

Many babies affected by cytomegalovirus will be stillborn. The affects on a surviving child can vary from mild to severe learning difficulties, hearing loss and various neurological problems.

image by pinterest.com

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Cytomegalovirus and Blood Pressure

One aspect of the virus that has come to the attention of the news media lately is its possible relationship to cardiovascular health. A study on mice by workers in Israel and reported in PloS Pathogens suggests that cytomegalovirus may cause high blood pressure and promote atherosclerosis.

Cytomegalovirus may cause high blood pressure – image by everydayhealth.com

This is interesting in that the findings tend to support the ideas of those such as Dr. Uffe Ravnskov, who reject the hypothesis that atherosclerosis is caused by high cholesterol, suggesting instead that the condition is the result of an inflammatory process in response to infection.


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