The Epstein-Barr virus is the most common viral infection in the world, and it’s thought that roughly 90% of the population has been infected with it at some point in their lives. It belongs to the herpes family of viruses and is otherwise known as human herpesvirus 4. Its commonality stems from its ability to spread easily through saliva and other bodily fluids, and the lack of specific symptoms it causes.
Considering how common it is, people may wonder why they’ve never heard of EBV. Many have likely either experienced or known someone who experienced a specific infection caused by the virus known as mononucleosis (mono), or “the kissing disease.” Typically, people with EBV contract it during childhood and are asymptomatic, meaning they experience no symptoms at all. However, even when signs of infection arise, they include ailments such as fatigue, fever, throat inflammation, and swollen lymph nodes. Of course, all of these afflictions can develop because of various health issues, not just Epstein-Barr.
New research is shining a light on this common virus and its connection to other health issues. Various findings have suggested that, even though EBV can lay dormant within the body, it can still set off a host of problems that people will have to deal with for the rest of their lives. Specifically, it has been recently linked to incurable autoimmune diseases. So how is Epstein-Barr virus linked to autoimmune disease, exactly? Read on to learn more.
Can Epstein-Barr cause other illnesses?
Aside from autoimmune disease, which we’ll talk about below, Epstein-Barr has also been linked to the development of other severe health disorders. These include various types of lymphoma, such as Hodgkin’s lymphoma, Non-Hodgkin’s lymphoma, and Burkitt’s lymphoma. Other diseases linked to an Epstein-Barr infection include post-transplant lymphoproliferative disease and nasopharyngeal carcinoma.
Research has found that EBV is linked to these different cancerous conditions because of the immune system’s natural aging process, and the way it can essentially cause immune cells to be cancerous. It appears the Epstein-Barr virus can make changes to the body’s immune system that can be severely detrimental to one’s health. This includes the previously mentioned cancers and, according to new research, several autoimmune diseases.
Can Epstein-Barr virus cause autoimmune diseases?
An autoimmune disease occurs when the immune system mistakes healthy cells and tissues for substances, cells, or pathogens that want to harm the body. The immune system then essentially attacks these areas where nothing is actually wrong. When that happens, the healthy cells being attacked can become severely damaged, and various issues and symptoms arise.
Autoimmune diseases are not uncommon – roughly five to eight percent of the American population is afflicted with one. There are over 80 types of autoimmune diseases, each targeting a different area of the body. Some will attack nerves, while others focus on the skin. Many autoimmune diseases are severe, but others are mild and do not lead to serious health consequences.
New studies conducted by a group of researchers supported by the NIH National Institute of Allergy and Infectious Diseases has found a link between autoimmune disease and the Epstein-Barr virus. The results, published in the journal Nature Genetics, found that the virus’ action on specific genes that switch on autoimmunity drives the causative connection.
What autoimmune diseases can be triggered by Epstein-Barr?
According to the new research, several autoimmune diseases are linked to the Epstein-Barr virus. They include:
- Systemic lupus erythematosus (SLE): SLE is the most common form of lupus. It is driven by the immune system attacking various areas such as the brain, lungs, kidneys, heart, blood vessels, skin, and joints.
- Rheumatoid arthritis (RA): RA is autoimmune arthritis that causes joint inflammation.
- Multiple sclerosis (MS): In MS, the protective coating on nerve cells known as the myelin sheath is attacked, leading to neurological changes and symptoms that can affect the entire body.
- Inflammatory Bowel Disease (IBD): IBD occurs when the immune system attacks areas along the gastrointestinal tract.
- Type 1 diabetes: Type 1 diabetes occurs when the immune system causes damage to the pancreas, so it can’t make enough insulin to process glucose.
- Juvenile idiopathic arthritis (JIA): JIA is a form of arthritis that develops in children.
- Celiac disease: In celiac disease, the immune system attacks the intestinal villi, which leads to the body’s inability to absorb nutrients from certain foods.
How does Epstein-Barr trigger autoimmune disease?
The latest research on autoimmune disease and the Epstein-Barr virus explores how the virus could cause these types of disorders to develop. The results focus on the virus’s ability to change gene expression in people already more susceptible to autoimmune disease.
Some people have specific genes that, if “switched on,” cause diseases to develop. That means that although they may not ever develop an autoimmune disease, their genetic predisposition puts them at a higher risk. When a person with the Epstein-Barr virus has these gene mutations, EBV manages to switch on the gene, changing the way it provides instructions to the rest of the body. That increases the risk even further, making it much more likely that a person will develop MS, RA, or any of the other autoimmune diseases mentioned above.
The aforementioned study looked at how EBV was flipping the switches in the genes, and found that when it interacts with proteins within the genes to try and turn its own genes on, it does so with specific gene variants that cause disease. This interaction then drives the changes needed to cause autoimmune disorders to develop.
Considering 90% of the population has the Epstein-Barr virus, it may be concerning to hear that it can cause life-altering or even life-threatening diseases to develop. However, with new research will also come new therapy methods for these diseases that may help manage or even cure them.