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What is Cytomegalovirus?

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  • Written By: Mary McMahon
  • Edited By: O. Wallace
  • Last Modified Date: 28 November 2016
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Cytomegalovirus (CMV) is a very common virus in the herpes virus group. As much of 80% of some populations are infected with cytomegalovirus, and for the most part, infections are silent, meaning that no symptoms appear, although people with silent infections are still carriers. Some people are at risk of developing symptoms from cytomegalovirus infection, including people with compromised immune systems and infants, because infants have poorly developed immunities.

There are several species in the CMV genus, some of which infect non-human primates in addition to people. Cytomegalovirus attacks the epithelial cells in the top layer of the skin, causing them to swell and fill with fluid. It tends to appear in the viscera and internal organs, and it also infamously attacks the eyes, causing vision impairment and sometimes blindness. If a doctor suspects a cytomegalovirus infection, a culture can be performed to test for the presence of the virus.

Because the infection rate of this virus is so high, there is a reasonable chance that you have it, but your body has kept it at bay. Cytomegalovirus first began to be recognized as a medical problem in the 1980s, when patients turned up with a number of bizarre infections with viruses and bacteria which normally did not manifest symptoms in healthy people. These opportunistic infections ended up being a key piece of the puzzle in the discovery of HIV/AIDS, and to this day, cytomegalovirus is regarded as an “indicator infection” suggesting the presence of HIV or AIDS.

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In addition to HIV/AIDS patients, this virus can also appear in people taking immunosuppressive drugs to prepare for organ transplant, and in cancer patients undergoing chemotherapy and radiation. Cytomegalovirus infection can also be an issue in pregnant women, since the virus can cause neurological deficits, hearing issues, and vision problems in unborn children.

Some silent carriers experience vague symptoms, like fatigue, swollen lymph nodes, and an enlarged liver or spleen. Often, these symptoms are so low-grade that the patient never seeks treatment, but in some cases, a flareup due to a temporarily weakened immune system may lead someone to go to the doctor, in which case cytomegalovirus may be diagnosed.

There is no cure for cytomegalovirus, although antiviral drugs can sometimes be used to control it and reduce the symptoms. In people with a severe infection, intravenous drugs may be administered to get the infection under control, followed by oral antivirals at home. Patients who are at risk for cytomegalovirus infection may also be given prophylactic drugs to suppress the virus or prevent infection, and encouraged to use good personal hygiene to reduce the risk of transmission.

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