The Epstein-Barr virus (EBV) is part of the herpesvirus family of viruses, and is otherwise known as human herpesvirus 4. It is incredibly common, and many people will have been infected with the virus at some point in their lives without knowing it. The most notable condition that can be associated with an Epstein-Barr virus infection is mononucleosis, or mono, otherwise known as the “kissing disease”.
Epstein-Barr can be contracted in a variety of different ways, the most common being through bodily fluids such as saliva. However, it can also be transmitted sexually through semen and blood. Other less common ways to contract the virus include organ transplants and blood transfusions. It is categorized as a virus, but is Epstein-Barr an autoimmune disorder, too?
What is an autoimmune disorder?
The immune system is the body’s defense system. It protects against foreign invaders and pathogens by eliciting a response from immune cells that are designed to battle dangerous invaders, helping get them out of the body before they can cause damage to tissues, organs, and other cells. When the immune system is operating as it should, the body is well equipped against sickness.
In patients with an autoimmune disease, that defense system becomes faulty. It begins to identify healthy cells in areas of the body as foreign and dangerous and triggers an immune response to fight them off. This essentially leads to the body attacking itself, which results in a variety of different symptoms and health issues, including widespread damage and inflammation.
What are the symptoms of chronic Epstein-Barr?
Since many people become infected with Epstein-Barr without even realizing it – generally when they are children – the virus can be asymptomatic. When symptoms do present in someone with the infection, they often include:
- Swollen lymph nodes
- An enlarged spleen
- Swollen liver
- Inflamed throat
Since these symptoms are non-specific, they can often be confused with other childhood illnesses, or a common cold or flu. Symptoms are more likely to appear in adults and teenagers, and when they do, they typically subside within two to four weeks. In more severe cases, an Epstein-Barr infection can cause symptoms such as fatigue to last for months.
Although the virus remains in the body for the remainder of one’s life, in most cases it becomes inactive or latent in tissues and does not affect health in any way. If a person does experience a reactivation of the virus, symptoms may or may not appear again, depending on the health of their immune system.
There is no known treatment for the Epstein-Barr virus and no vaccine has been developed to help prevent it. The only way to treat EBV is by addressing its symptoms. In some cases the virus can also lead to complications, which may include:
- Spleen rupture
- Low platelet count
- Nervous system conditions such as meningitis and encephalitis
The virus has also been shown to heighten the risk of developing some rare cancers such as nasopharyngeal cancer, Burkitt’s lymphoma, and Hodgkin’s lymphoma.
Does having Epstein-Barr make you immunocompromised?
Although Epstein-Barr isn’t an autoimmune disorder in and of itself, it can lead to a person becoming immunocompromised because of the affect it can have on a person’s blood and bone marrow. If the virus causes the body to produce too many white blood cells, the immune system can become weak. This will lead to a less viable defense system and more difficulty fighting off infection.
Sometimes, this lessened immune function caused by Epstein-Barr can lead to conditions such as neutropenia (a low number of a specific type of white blood cell known as a neutrophil) or the immune disease hemophagocytic syndrome (which leads to a “cytokine storm” that could be life-threatening).
Can Epstein-Barr cause other illnesses?
In some cases, Epstein-Barr can cause many health issues. Depending on the area it affects, the diseases or illnesses caused by the virus will differ. In the case that the nervous system is affected, Epstein-Barr can lead to:
- Optic neuritis (swelling of the eye nerves)
- Transverse myelitis (swelling of the spinal cord)
- Facial nerve palsies
- Guillain-Barre syndrome (an immune system disease)
- Acute cerebellar ataxia (sudden onset of muscle discoordination)
- Sleep disorders
Other infections and diseases that can be caused by the viral infection of Epstein-Barr include:
- Scarring of the lung tissue (interstitial lung disease)
- Some types of cancers
- Peritonsillar abscesses (pus-filled tissues near the tonsils)
- Acute bacterial sinusitis
- A bacterial infection of the mastoid bone in the skull
- Swelling or injury of salivary glands
Can previously having mono cause autoimmune disease?
The Epstein-Barr virus has been associated with many health conditions. When it comes to autoimmune disease, the virus has been associated with the development of such diseases as systemic lupus erythematosus. Researchers believe that the reason for the development of autoimmune disease following an infection with Epstein-Barr could be attributed to the virus’s ability to essentially turn on or activate certain genes that increase the risk of developing an autoimmune disease.
Although Epstein-Barr isn’t an autoimmune disease itself, it can lead to the development of many chronic diseases. The best way to avoid the risk of developing further disease caused by this very common virus is by avoiding contracting it in the first place. This can be done by not sharing foods or drinks with people and avoiding kissing or sexual activity with someone who has the virus.