Viral infections come in all shapes and sizes. Some will take a light hold and cause mild illness, while others will dive deep into tissues and cause long-term disease and health issues. Viruses also affect people in different ways. For example, a young, healthy person may not experience any symptoms of a mild cold or flu virus, but an older adult with preexisting conditions could be hospitalized with the same infection.
When it comes to common viruses that are difficult to understand, Epstein-Barr is the leader of the pack. The virus has been around for a long time – people may commonly know it as “the kissing disease”, or mono. As much as 90% of the global population is actually walking around with the Epstein-Barr virus in their bodies without any knowledge of it!
Because of this, some people may suffer from long-term consequences of the disease, such as autoimmune conditions and an increased risk of developing certain cancers. But how does Epstein-Barr affect the brain? Let’s investigate.
What is Epstein-Barr?
The Epstein-Barr virus belongs to the family of herpes viruses. It is also known as the human herpes virus 4. As one of the most common viruses, it affects many people worldwide. The reason why it’s so easy to transmit is because many people are asymptomatic, meaning they don’t experience any symptoms at all when contracting EBV. When signs of infection do develop, they are often mild and treated at home without any testing.
Another reason why so many people contract the virus is because of how it’s spread. Saliva and the exchange of other bodily fluids are all it takes to pass it on to another person. Kissing and sharing eating utensils or beverages are all it takes to spread the virus.
For the people who do develop EBV symptoms, they can include:
- Throat inflammation
- Swollen lymph nodes in the neck
- A swollen liver or enlarged spleen
These symptoms are non-specific, so it’s hard to pinpoint what is causing them at the time – ostensibly, it could be any common cold or flu.
How does Epstein-Barr affect the body?
Once people contract EBV, they may or may not get ill. But how well their body fights off infection doesn’t change the fact that once the virus is within the body, it will be there for life. It essentially finds tissues to camp out in, then goes dormant. This is known as viral latency – the virus is still in the body, but is not actively damaging any part of it. Viral latency is why so many people can live with Epstein-Barr and not realize it.
However, EBV can reactivate in some cases. When that happens, it can begin causing harm to bodily systems. Specific parts of the body most affected by Epstein-Barr are the blood and bone marrow. When the virus gets into the blood and bone marrow, it causes the immune system to produce white blood cells, the cells designed to fight off infection, in overabundance. This can dysregulate immunity, eventually leading to conditions such as autoimmune disease and cancer.
The Epstein-Barr virus can also negatively affect organ systems, including the brain and nervous system.
What does Epstein-Barr do to the brain?
Like other areas of the body, the Epstein-Barr virus can cause inflammatory processes in the brain that damage systems on a cellular level. This is due to its ability to infiltrate the blood–brain barrier, a collection of cell types designed to block harmful pathogens from getting into the brain. The Epstein-Barr virus isn’t deterred by these cells, and can infiltrate the area, disrupting how the barrier functions.
Doing so opens up a pathway for immune cells to enter the brain, which can lead to autoimmune damage. Once in the brain, the virus can cause neuroinflammation, the inflammatory response that occurs when foreign invaders make their way into the brain or spinal cord.
Can Epstein-Barr cause neurological problems?
Because of how the virus manages to infiltrate the brain and nervous systems, it can negatively affect the health of the brain. That can lead to various neurological issues, including:
- Swelling of the tissues that cover the spinal cord and brain, known as viral meningitis
- Brain swelling, known as encephalitis
- Swelling of eye nerves, known as optic neuritis
- Spinal cord swelling, known as transverse myelitis
- Paralysis of the muscles in the face, known as facial nerve palsies
- Immune system disorders such as Guillain-Barré syndrome and multiple sclerosis
- Uncoordinated muscle movement, known as acute cerebellar ataxia
- Paralysis on one side of the body, known as hemiplegia
- Sleep disorders
- Psychosis and other mental health issues
All of these health afflictions can be serious in nature. That is just one of the many reasons why the Epstein-Barr virus, which was previously thought to only lead to mild illness, can actually be dangerous. The best thing you can do is avoid sharing beverages or kissing those who are ill to improve your chances of avoiding contact with the virus.