Not all viruses are the same, and they can each cause varying health issues from person to person. For example, the flu virus tends to cause mild illness that, for most people, lasts for a week, give or take. However, that same virus can last much longer or cause severe health complications in others. When it comes to viral infections, it’s hard to determine precisely how a person will be affected until they contract it. The same can be said for the most common viral infection in the world: The Epstein-Barr virus. So what are the potential long-term effects of Epstein-Barr?
First, let’s take a look at EBV as a whole. The Epstein-Barr virus has been contracted by as much as 90% of the global population. Its ability to spread so quickly comes from the fact that not everyone shows symptoms and its method of transmission through saliva and other bodily fluids. The virus’ most notable illness, mononucleosis (or mono for short), is often referred to as “the kissing disease” because of its saliva transmission.
When people get mono or contract the Epstein-Barr virus without exhibiting symptoms, their body recovers from the initial invasion, and things return to normal. However, the virus stays within the body’s tissues, lying dormant for the rest of their lives. New research has shed light on how this lifelong viral guest can affect your health – and the results show that the long-term effects of Epstein-Barr may not be as benign as we once thought.
What are the symptoms of Epstein-Barr?
When a person first contracts Epstein-Barr, they may or may not develop symptoms. For those that are asymptomatic, there will be no telltale signs that infection has occurred at all. Others will often experience symptoms such as:
- An enlarged spleen
- Swollen lymph nodes
- Throat inflammation
The above symptoms can be mild and go away within two to four weeks. That said, fatigue caused by the disease can linger for months, even when other signs of the viral infection have subsided.
What are chronic EBV symptoms?
In some cases, people may recover from the initial infection of Epstein-Barr, and the virus will go dormant in the body. While in this state, the virus doesn’t cause any ailments or other signs. It ceases the attack on the body and simply sets up shop for the long run.
The issue is that since the virus is still in the body, it can reactivate anytime, and infection will ensue. Chronic Epstein-Barr presents with symptoms that do not subside. When blood is tested, it shows an active infection.
People with chronic Epstein-Barr can experience symptoms such as:
- Swollen lymph nodes
- Stiffness in the joints
- Sore throat
- Muscle pain
- Enlarged spleen
- Liver failure
The people most likely to experience reactivation and chronic EBV symptoms are those with weakened immune systems. When the immune system isn’t up to controlling the Epstein-Barr infection, it can remain active within the body. In contrast, people with robust immune systems generally stifle the virus, which is why it remains dormant.
Contracting COVID-19 may also cause a reactivation of the Epstein-Barr virus and can lead to even further health complications because there will be two viruses active within the body simultaneously.
Epstein-Barr and Long-term Complications
In people with chronic Epstein-Barr, long-term health complications can develop, including:
- A weakened immune system
- Hemophagocytic syndrome – a rare disorder that affects the immune system
- Organ failure
Those are not the only long-term health complications associated with the Epstein-Barr virus. Research has shown that people with the virus in their bodies are at an increased risk of developing certain cancers, including:
- Cancers that develop in the back of the nose
- Several types of lymphomas, including Hodgkin’s lymphoma and Burkitt’s lymphoma
- Stomach cancer
While it is rare to develop cancer associated with Epstein-Barr, it is still possible. Only 1% of cancers developed across the globe are connected to the virus.
What can Epstein-Barr virus cause later in life?
Recent research has shed light on more health disorders linked to Epstein-Barr and found that both mental and physical conditions can develop because of the viral infection early on in life. While Epstein-Barr doesn’t directly cause these conditions, it is an added risk factor and can increase the chances of someone developing it.
Autoimmune diseases are one such health complication associated with Epstein-Barr. There are several that studies have shown to be linked to EBV, including:
- Multiple sclerosis
- Celiac disease
- Type 1 diabetes
- Inflammatory bowel disease
- Juvenile idiopathic arthritis
- Hashimoto’s thyroiditis
- Graves’ disease
It is thought that a person’s genetics come into play when they contract the virus and then develop an autoimmune disease because the virus can turn on specific genes that increase the risk.
Another disorder, schizophrenia, is thought to be connected to the Epstein-Barr virus. While research is still ongoing regarding the link, it’s thought that specific genetic risk factors also come into play when connecting schizophrenia and Epstein-Barr.
EBV is ubiquitous, and it’s difficult to determine if you have it because often you won’t experience symptoms. While the virus can increase the risk of certain diseases, it doesn’t directly cause them. The best thing you can do to avoid an increased threat from Epstein-Barr is to practice a healthy lifestyle and avoid the viral infection as best you can if you haven’t yet contracted it.