Cytomegalovirus (CMV) is a leading cause of congenital illness and disability, including hearing loss and mental retardation. However, there are no nationwide estimates of CMV seroprevalence among pregnant women or the overall population of the United States. To determine CMV prevalence in a representative sample of the US population, we tested serum samples for CMV-specific immunoglobulin G from participants aged > or =6 years (n=21,639) in the third National Health and Nutrition Examination Survey (1988-1994). The prevalence of CMV infection was 58.9% in individuals > or =6 years old. CMV seroprevalence increased gradually with age, from 36.3% in 6-11-year-olds to 90.8% in those aged > or =80 years. CMV seroprevalence differed by race and/or ethnicity as follows: 51.2% in non-Hispanic white persons, 75.8% in non-Hispanic black persons, and 81.7% in Mexican Americans. Racial and/or ethnic differences in CMV seroprevalence persisted when controlling for household income level, education, marital status, area of residence, census region, family size, country of birth, and type of medical insurance. Among women, racial and/or ethnic differences were especially significant; between ages 10-14 years and 20-24 years, seroprevalence increased 38% for non-Hispanic black persons, 7% for non-Hispanic white persons, and <1% for Mexican Americans. On the basis of these results, we estimate that each year in the United States approximately 340,000 non-Hispanic white persons, 130,000 non-Hispanic black persons, and 50,000 Mexican American women of childbearing age experience a primary CMV infection. Given the number of women at risk and the significance of congenital disease, development of programs for the prevention of CMV infection, such as vaccination or education, is of considerable public health importance.