The Epstein Barr Virus and Long-Term Complications
Since the pandemic, our views on viruses have radically changed. The general public has more of an idea of how they work, and how we can work together to protect the health of our communities. Viruses, however, are complicated and are constantly changing. One virus that has been a topic of conversation amongst health communities is what’s known as the Epstein-Barr Virus. What is this virus, why are so many health educators talking about it, and how might it impact your health? Let’s find out!
What is The Epstein Barr Virus?
Epstein-Barr Virus is a member of the herpes family and is also known as herpesvirus 4. One of the most common viruses that infect humans, EBV is found all over the world. Most people are infected at some point in their lives, however, teenagers and adults are more likely to exhibit symptoms than children. EBV is spread through bodily fluids, primarily through saliva, but also blood and semen as well. This means you can contract EBV by sharing utensils, toothbrushes, kissing, and occasionally through sexual activity. Initial infection with EBV can cause mononucleosis, also known as mono or “the kissing bug”. There is currently no vaccine to prevent the spread of EBV. Thanks to recent research into its potential long-term side effects, more efforts may be put into developing a vaccine as a way to prevent related diseases.
Symptoms of The Epstein Barr Virus
A lot of people who contract the Epstein-Barr Virus don’t show any symptoms, especially children. That being said, these are some common symptoms of an infection:
- Enlarged spleen
- Swollen liver
- Swollen lymph nodes
- Inflamed throat
These symptoms typically clear up in two to four weeks. Some people may experience fatigue for weeks or months after, and some people experience more long-term complications.
Long-Term Effects of Epstein Barr Virus
After your initial infection clears up, the virus becomes dormant in the body. In some cases, it starts to cause symptoms later on, especially for people with weakened immune systems. Recent studies show that inflammation from infection with COVID-19 may reactivate the EBV virus and may lead to symptoms of long COVID. Another possible complication is chronic EBV. Although rare, chronic EBV occurs when a person’s immune system isn’t able to control the infection, keeping the infection active. Symptoms of this include:
- Swollen lymph nodes
- Joint stiffness
- Sore throat
- Liver failure
It’s not just the EBV infection that can cause long-term health issues. EBV may increase someone’s risk of developing other health conditions. Possible long-term complications of chronic EBV include lymphomas, leukemia, a weakened immune system, and organ failure.
Epstein-Barr virus and Autoimmune Disorders
An EBV infection may increase your risk of developing seven autoimmune diseases. It is believed that this is because the infection may activate genes that affect the function of your immune system. If someone has a genetic predisposition to a certain illness or disease, they may be more likely to develop it based on different environmental factors. One of those environmental factors is viruses, infections, and inflammation which can be caused by infections. EBV for some people may be one of the environmental triggers that set the right environment for someone to develop an autoimmune disorder. For people with a genetic predisposition, EBV may switch on the genes associated with certain autoimmune disorders.
The diseases that have been linked with Epstein-Barr virus are:
- Type 1 diabetes
- Celiac disease
- Rheumatoid arthritis
- Multiple sclerosis
- Thyroid disorders
- Juvenile idiopathic arthritis
- Certain types of cancers including Hodgkin’s lymphoma and gastric adenocarcinoma (stomach cancer)
- Inflammatory bowel disease
Treatment of EBV
Most cases of EBV will clear up on their own. However, this isn’t the case for people with chronic EBV or who develop related disorders. There is a blood test that can confirm a prior EBV infection. About nine out of ten adults have antibodies for EBV, so although it could be the source of more chronic symptoms, it’s hard to isolate it as a cause since it’s so prevalent.
For people with chronic EBV in particular, there is one proven effective treatment known as “hematopoietic stem cell transplantation”, aka a bone marrow or stem cell transplant. Treatment of other related health issues varies greatly on the disease, as well as the individual. Although research into EBV and chronic health conditions is relatively new and still has a long way to go, it’s started to give scientists more tools with which to approach autoimmune disorders. One example is new research into antiviral treatments for people with multiple sclerosis.
The role of EBV in other long-term conditions is not totally understood, especially considering how common it is. That being said, it’s helpful to have on your radar, especially if you are navigating chronic health disorders that may be related to EBV.
Natasha (she/her) is a full-spectrum doula and health+wellness copywriter. Her work focuses on deconstructing the shame, stigma, and barriers people carry around birth, sex, health, and beyond, to help people navigate through their lives with more education and empowerment. You can connect with Natasha on IG @natasha.s.weiss.