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Cytomegalovirus (CMV) During Pregnancy

Reviewed by James Brann, M.D.

You May Never Know you've Been Exposed

CMV can cause serious problems for  unborn babies.

If you’re around young children, you may want to be aware of cytomegalovirus (CMV) and your risk for it.

Cytomegalovirus (CMV) is a very common virus that is passed from person-to-person and can infect people of all ages. CMV is a member of the herpes virus family, and once it gets into your body, it stays there for life. But in a person with a healthy immune system, the virus stays dormant or silent, producing few or no symptoms at all. Like with toxoplasmosis, if you do develop symptoms, they tend to be mild and flu-like. These symptoms may include severe tiredness, headache, high fever, chills, and an enlarged spleen.

Between 50 to 80 percent of American adults will be infected by CMV by the time they are 40 years old. Children are normally infected in early childhood, especially if they attend childcare or preschool. Because most people have no symptoms, you may never know that you’ve been exposed to CMV unless you are tested for the virus.

How Does CMV Spread?

CMV can cause serious problems for people with weakened immune systems and for the unborn babies of infected women. Because it can be passed from the infected mother to her baby during pregnancy, birth, and breastfeeding, it is a virus to pay special attention to. CMV is the most common virus transmitted from mother to child during pregnancy.

Like other common viruses, CMV can be spread through close contact with an infected person. Healthcare and lab workers, moms of young children in childcare, and childcare workers are at high risk of getting CMV. In the infected person, the virus can be passed through bodily fluids, including blood, saliva, semen, cervical secretions, breast milk, and urine.

Pregnant women commonly contract a CMV infection through sexual contact with an infected person. They can also get the virus through contact with the saliva or urine of young children who have been infected.

One to four percent of pregnant women will experience their first CMV infection during pregnancy. About one-third of these women will pass it on to their child. Minorities and people with lower household incomes have higher rates of infection.

Can My Baby Catch CMV?

If you have already been infected with the virus before pregnancy, you have less than a one percent chance of infecting your child.

Most babies born with CMV will never develop any symptoms or disabilities. Some babies may have temporary symptoms that go away in time. These may include jaundice (yellow skin), liver problems, purple skin splotches, low birth weight, and spleen problems.

In other cases, the damage from the virus can be permanent and leave these children with serious disabilities, such as hearing or vision loss, mental disability, small head size, lack of coordination, seizures, and even death.

In the United States, 1 in 150 babies are born with a CMV infection, but only 1 in 750 children will develop serious disabilities from it. Every year, close to 8,000 children suffer from permanent disabilities as a result of CMV.

An estimated 10 percent of CMV-infected infants will have symptoms at birth, but the other 90 percent show no symptoms.

Out of these 90 percent, between 10 to 15 percent will develop symptoms months and sometimes years after birth. If you are worried that your baby was born with CMV, your doctor can test his or her urine, saliva, and blood for the virus. This must be done within the first three weeks after birth. Luckily, babies that become infected with CMV after birth are not at risk for any disabilities.

How to Prevent CMV Infection

Because there are no safe and effective drugs to treat CMV in pregnant women, prevention is key:

  • Wash your hands frequently with soap and water for at least 15 to 20 seconds.

  • Avoid contact with people who are sick.

  • Do not kiss young child under the age of 5 on the mouth or cheek. Kiss them on the head instead.

  • Do not share food, drink, and utensils with young children.

  • If you work in a childcare center, you can reduce your risk of catching CMV by working with children who are older than two.

  • Avoid sexual contact with multiple partners.
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