In 1986, the song “Stuck with You” soared on the charts. That same year, scientists discovered a new virus that is, indeed, stuck on most everyone. The human herpesvirus 6, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, infects nearly 100 percent of Americans. Most babies become infected with the virus before their first birthday with essentially all infected by age 3. Once infected, the virus lingers in the salivary glands and other cells for the rest of a person's life.
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Initial human herpesvirus 6 infections were recognized years ago and named roseola, sixth disease or exantham subitum. Of the 2 virus variants -- variant A and variant B -- B is most frequently associated with illness. Sudden high fever is a distinctive feature of human herpesvirus 6 infection, which is spread by contact with an infected person's saliva. This fever lasts several days. Other symptoms may be irritability, runny nose, cough and diarrhea. In typical cases, children will develop a pink rash as the fever dissipates. This rash usually starts on the main part of the body and spreads to the arms, legs, face and neck.
Less Common Symptoms
Seizures are the most common complication of roseola. This may be a single seizure or multiple seizures. A 2005 article in the "Journal of Clinical Microbiology" found that 10 percent of children experience seizures with their initial infection. However, this percent is considered an overestimate, as it includes only those children sick enough to require urgent medical care. Other complications include ear infections, exceptionally high fever, respiratory distress, enlargement of the liver or spleen and hepatitis. Rarely, the infection can lead to death.
Human herpesvirus 6 stays in the body long after the initial infection. In situations that diminish the strength of a person's immune system, the virus can reactivate. People who have had a bone marrow, kidney or lung transplant or HIV infection risk reactivation. According to the CDC, these individuals may experience fever, rash, brain inflammation or encephalitis, hepatitis and graft rejection. However, the precise role of human herpesvirus 6 in these problems is still being determined as the interplay with other viruses complicate the picture. Research also continues to investigate the possible role of this virus in multiple sclerosis.
Human herpesvirus 6 can cause problems that require emergency medical intervention. These include seizures in either children or adults that continue for more than 2 or 3 minutes and that appear particularly severe or are followed one after another. Single seizures that last less than a minute or 2 should receive prompt medical evaluation. High fevers that do not come down with medications such as acetaminophen (Tylenol) or nonsteroidal antiinflammatory medication (Aleve, Advil) should also receive prompt medical evaluation. Consultation with a health-care provider should be sought for concerns about reactivation symptoms in a person with a weak immune system or about children who appear to have severe symptoms from human herpesvirus 6 infection.