Human health can be fickle, especially if you contract a specific pathogen. Various bacteria, viruses, fungi, and other harmful substances can infiltrate the body and wreak havoc on more than one system. Research has shown that catching certain viruses or other illnesses can increase a person’s risk of developing different types of diseases later in life.
While the reasoning for this differs depending on the type of pathogen and the disease that develops, one such virus and disease connection found is the Epstein-Barr virus and autoimmune disease. But what is the Epstein-Barr virus? And what autoimmune diseases can Epstein-Barr virus contribute to?
What is Epstein-Barr?
The Epstein-Barr virus is a pathogen from the herpes family of viruses. It is also known as human herpesvirus 4. It is one of, if not the most common virus found in humans, and much of the global population will be infected with it at some point in their lives. It spreads quickly, which contributes to widespread contraction. Specifically, the virus can move from one person to another through bodily fluids, mainly saliva. The most well-known illness that develops in people with Epstein-Barr is infectious mononucleosis, more commonly known as mono.
The symptoms associated with Epstein-Barr infection aren’t always specific. Because of this, they can appear to be caused by other types of illness. Symptoms include:
- Throat inflammation
- Swollen lymph nodes
- Swollen liver
- Enlarged spleen
In many cases, people contract Epstein-Barr when they’re children and experience no symptoms at all – contributing to the virus’s ability to easily spread through the population.
What diseases are associated with Epstein-Barr virus?
Several diseases are connected to an infection with the Epstein-Barr virus. They include:
- Hodgkin’s lymphoma
- Non-Hodgkin’s lymphoma
- Burkitt’s lymphoma
- Post-transplant lymphoproliferative disease
- Nasopharyngeal carcinoma
It is unclear why the Epstein-Barr virus contributes to these diseases, but research has found that the reason is possibly linked to the immune system.
What is an autoimmune disease?
Autoimmune disease has to do with the immune system and how it functions. In a person with a healthy immune system, various cells, organs, and other substances work together to ward off pathogens and other harmful substances to keep the body healthy. The system acts as protection, first responder, and soldier against viruses, bacteria, cancer, and illnesses that try to infiltrate the body. The protection area of the immune system keeps pathogens out. The skin is one organ that works as part of the immune system to protect the rest of the body.
The first responders of the immune system are cells that belong to what is known as the “innate” immune system. They sense a threat and head to the affected area of the body to drive up inflammation so that the cells that fight off infection are alerted to the problem and know where to go.
In a person with an autoimmune disease, the same actions apply. However, the attacking cells are causing damage to healthy tissues instead of areas affected by pathogens. They mistake healthy cells in the body for something that is there to harm your health, meaning they jump at the chance to protect the body – even though they don’t need to.
This case of mistaken identity causes damage to healthy working cells and, in turn, results in the presence of various symptoms. The symptoms that arise from autoimmune diseases differ depending on the type of disease. There are over 80 possible autoimmune diseases, each affecting different organs, systems, and areas of the body.
The role of Epstein-Barr virus in autoimmune diseases
Research has shown that people with the Epstein-Barr virus may be at an increased risk of developing specific autoimmune diseases. There are several types connected to the virus, including:
- Systemic lupus erythematosus
- Rheumatoid arthritis
- Multiple sclerosis
- Inflammatory bowel disease
- Type 1 diabetes
- Juvenile idiopathic arthritis
- Celiac disease
The reason behind the connection has to do with how the Epstein-Barr virus affects the body. There are specific genes associated with autoimmune disease. When a person gets an Epstein-Barr virus infection, it can get into the body and activate those genes, increasing the risk of developing one or more of the diseases mentioned above.
The caveat is that people with an already-existing genetic predisposition are the ones who are at risk. Genetic predisposition is a slightly increased genetic risk for developing the disease, but it does not mean a person is guaranteed to develop any such disorder, even if they have the predisposition. In people with both the Epstein-Barr virus and genetic predisposition, however, that risk increases as soon as the virus switches on the genes that lead to autoimmune disease.
While this appears to be bad news for those with both EBV and genetic predisposition, it’s not all negative. The research that discovered the connection can be used to further investigate how the Epstein-Barr virus affects the body, and may even help to develop new treatments for autoimmune diseases in future.