Viral infections are common. But did you know we can contract various types of viruses without even knowing? While there are possible symptoms associated with most virus-driven illnesses, the immune system can sometimes fight so well that people don’t feel any changes in their bodies. Because of that, when these kinds of viruses spread, they can do so quickly and easily. Once a person contracts certain types of these viral infections, the virus can also lay dormant in the body for the rest of their lives. In these cases, the spread may be lower, but not nonexistent.
One virus that has afflicted most of the world’s population due to its low symptoms, high spread rate, and ability to lay dormant is the Epstein-Barr virus. But what is Epstein-Barr, exactly? And does it have a link to other diseases – can EBV turn into lupus, for example? Read on to learn more.
What is Epstein-Barr?
Epstein-Barr, also referred to as human herpesvirus 4, is a viral pathogen that belongs to the family of viruses known as herpes. It is considered the most common infection in the world because much of the world’s population carries it within their bodies. People are typically infected during childhood and pass it on to peers by sharing drinks or eating utensils. The virus mainly moves through saliva, but can also be passed through other bodily fluids.
Most people are unaware they’re spreading EBV because when they contracted it, they experienced no symptoms or only had a mild illness that didn’t require further medical testing. The most well-known infection caused by the Epstein-Barr virus is mononucleosis (also known as “mono”).
What are the symptoms of Epstein-Barr?
There are several non-specific symptoms associated with the Epstein-Barr virus. Non-specific symptoms can occur in many illnesses, so it’s often difficult to determine if a person has Epstein-Barr based on symptoms alone. Symptoms can include:
- Swollen lymph nodes in the neck
- Inflammation in the throat
- A swollen liver
- An enlarged spleen
- A rash on the body
However, these symptoms can also occur in other illnesses, such as:
- Skin conditions such as eczema
- Gastroesophageal reflux disease
What autoimmune diseases can EBV cause?
Autoimmune diseases occur when there is dysfunction within the immune system. Instead of attacking pathogens and other harmful substances, immune cells see healthy tissue as a threat and attack them. This mistaken identity leads to internal damage caused by a person’s own defence system.
There are over 80 identified autoimmune diseases, each with its own symptoms and targeted areas of the body. Because of this, many autoimmune disorders do not present the same way, even though the mechanism of onset is identical.
Studies have examined a link between a previous Epstein-Barr infection and the development of autoimmune disease later in life, and have found that several conditions are connected to EBV. These include:
- Multiple sclerosis (MS)
- Rheumatoid arthritis (RA)
- Inflammation bowel diseases (IBD), i.e. Crohn’s disease and ulcerative colitis
- Type 1 diabetes
- Celiac disease
- Juvenile idiopathic arthritis
The theory surrounding the link between Epstein-Barr and autoimmune disease revolves around the virus’s ability to “turn on” specific genes. That action sets in motion a chain of events that lead to the body’s immune system attacking itself.
Is Epstein-Barr linked to lupus?
Another autoimmune disease linked to Epstein-Barr is systemic lupus erythematosus (SLE), a form of lupus. Lupus is an autoimmune disorder that isn’t localized like other forms of the disease. Instead, it can cause the immune system to target inflammation on any part of the body. The area that is most commonly damaged by lupus depends on the type. In the case of SLE, the internal organs are the primary target. Other types of lupus will attack the skin, joints, and other body areas.
The symptoms associated with SLE include:
- Skin rashes
- Pain or swelling in the joints
- Swelling in the feet
- Eye swelling
- Extreme fatigue
- Low-grade fever
Over time, lupus can lead to dangerous health complications because of the damage done to internal organs, including:
- Kidney failure
- Strokes and cognitive dysfunction due to brain and nervous system inflammation
- Seizures or behavioral changes due to blood vessel inflammation in the brain
- Heart disease due to hardening of the arteries
What is the connection between Lupus and Epstein-Barr virus?
As mentioned above, the Epstein-Barr virus can change genes in the body. When these genes, which provide instructions to cells for them to function appropriately, are altered by the virus, their altered gene expression can increase a person’s risk for lupus. Because of that, the Epstein-Barr and lupus link is considered both genetic and environmental.
People with specific genetic mutations are more likely to develop autoimmune disease, even without EBV. When Epstein-Barr manages to infiltrate the body, it can put people more susceptible to autoimmune disease at an even higher risk because of its ability to essentially activate genetic predisposition to the condition.
Studies have examined how these gene changes take place, and it’s thought that when the virus interacts with proteins to turn its own genes on, it does so with the variants in a person’s DNA that are tied to an increased risk of lupus and other autoimmune diseases.
A specific Epstein-Barr protein that is thought to increase lupus risk is EBNA2. This protein has been shown to interact with genes associated with lupus risk at a rate of 50%. The same protein contributes to an increased risk of other autoimmune diseases, including MS, RA, and type 1 diabetes.
While these findings may appear negative, it’s important to remember they can also be used to create potential treatments for autoimmune diseases that currently have no cure.
Featured image by Polina Tankilevitch on Pexels