Cytomegalovirus Infections


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Micrograph of cells. A large one with a large, dark nucleus is labeled CMV-infected cell.
Cells infected with CMV become enlarged and have a characteristic “owl’s eye” nucleus. This micrograph shows kidney cells from a patient with CMV. (credit: modification of work by Centers for Disease Control and Prevention)

OpenStax Microbiology

Also known as cytomegalovirus (CMV), human herpesvirus 5 (HHV-5) is a virus with high infection rates in the human population. It is currently estimated that 50% of people in the US have been infected by the time they reach adulthood. CMV is the major cause of non-Epstein-Barr infectious mononucleosis in the general human population. It is also an important pathogen in immunocompromised hosts, including patients with AIDS, neonates, and transplant recipients. However, the vast majority of CMV infections are asymptomatic. In adults, if symptoms do occur, they typically include fever, fatigue, swollen glands, and pharyngitis.

CMV can be transmitted between individuals through contact with body fluids such as saliva or urine. Common modes of transmission include sexual contact, nursing, blood transfusions, and organ transplants. In addition, pregnant women with active infections frequently pass this virus to their fetus, resulting in congenital CMV infections, which occur in approximately one in every 150 infants in US. Infants can also be infected during passage through the birth canal or through breast milk and saliva from the mother.

Perinatal infections tend to be milder but can occasionally cause lung, spleen, or liver damage. Serious symptoms in newborns include growth retardation, jaundice, deafness, blindness, and mental retardation if the virus crosses the placenta during the embryonic state when the body systems are developing in utero. However, a majority (approximately 80%) of infected infants will never have symptoms or experience long-term problems. Diagnosis of CMV infection during pregnancy is usually achieved by serology; CMV is the “C” in prenatal TORCH screening.

Many patients receiving blood transfusions and nearly all those receiving kidney transplants ultimately become infected with CMV. Approximately 60% of transplant recipients will have CMV infection and more than 20% will develop symptomatic disease. These infections may result from CMV-contaminated tissues but also may be a consequence of immunosuppression required for transplantation causing reactivation of prior CMV infections. The resulting viremia can lead to fever and leukopenia, a decrease in the number of white blood cells in the bloodstream. Serious consequences may include liver damage, transplant rejection, and death. For similar reasons, many patients with AIDS develop active CMV infections that can manifest as encephalitis or progressive retinitis leading to blindness.

Diagnosis of a localized CMV infection can be achieved through direct microscopic evaluation of tissue specimens stained with routine stains (e.g., Wright-Giemsa, hematoxylin and eosin, Papanicolaou) and immunohistochemical stains. Cells infected by CMV produce characteristic inclusions with an “owl’s eye” appearance; this sign is less sensitive than molecular methods like PCR but more predictive of localized disease. For more severe CMV infection, tests such as enzyme immunoassay (EIA), indirect immunofluorescence antibody (IFA) tests, and PCR, which are based on detection of CMV antigen or DNA, have a higher sensitivity and can determine viral load. Cultivation of the virus from saliva or urine is still the method for detecting CMV in newborn babies up to 3 weeks old. Ganciclovir, valganciclovir, foscarnet, and cidofovir are the first-line antiviral drugs for serious CMV infections.


Parker, N., Schneegurt, M., Thi Tu, A.-H., Forster, B. M., & Lister, P. (n.d.). Microbiology. Houston, Texas: OpenStax. Access for free at: