Causes and Risk Factors of Burkitt Lymphoma

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The cause of Burkitt lymphoma, an aggressive form of non-Hodgkin lymphoma, depends on the type. However, experts still don’t know exactly what causes it. What they do know is that it primarily affects children.

There are three forms of Burkitt lymphoma: endemic, sporadic, and immunodeficiency related. Sporadic Burkitt lymphoma is the most common type in the United States.

Between 30% and 50% of cancer cases in children in Africa involve the endemic form of Burkitt lymphoma. The endemic form is closely associated with Epstein-Barr virus (EBV) infections. Some cases of immunodeficiency-related Burkitt lymphoma and sporadic Burkitt lymphoma also have links to EBV.

This article will discuss the causes and risk factors of Burkitt lymphoma.

Child with doctor

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Common Causes

Burkitt lymphoma can develop when there are cancerous changes in the B cell lymphocytes, a type of white blood cell involved in immune system functions.

Epstein-Barr Virus

The endemic form of Burkitt lymphoma is strongly associated with infection with the Epstein-Barr virus. This form is primarily seen in equatorial Africa and Papua New Guinea.

Experts don’t yet know how or why EBV plays a role in the development of this type of cancer. It’s possible that by transforming B cells, EBV contributes to the growth of certain cancers like Burkitt lymphoma.

Epstein-Barr Virus (EBV)

This common virus is a member of the herpes family. You can get it by coming into contact with someone’s body fluids, especially saliva. 

EBV produces symptoms of mononucleosis, which may include:

  • Fever
  • Tiredness
  • Swollen, sore throat
  • Swollen neck lymph nodes
  • Rash
  • Enlarged spleen or liver 

Unfortunately, there’s currently no vaccine to prevent an EBV infection. And because it’s so common, most people end up contracting the virus at some point in their lifetime, usually during their childhood.

HIV

Human immunodeficiency virus (HIV) is also linked to Burkitt lymphoma. However, having EBV or HIV doesn’t necessarily mean you’ll develop this type of cancer.

Burkitt lymphoma may cause fatigue and weakness as it progresses. These symptoms may also occur with HIV, making it a potential differential diagnosis for EBV, meaning it’s a disease with similar signs and symptoms that doctors must rule out to make a diagnosis. Additionally, while HIV is linked to Burkitt lymphoma, having it doesn’t mean you have this type of cancer.

Symptoms of an acute HIV infection include:

  • Fever and chills
  • Night sweats
  • Rash
  • Mouth sores
  • Muscle pain
  • Fatigue
  • Sore throat

If you think you may have contracted HIV, please get tested.

Genetics

Almost all cases of Burkitt lymphoma are the result of genetic mutations involving genes like the MYC gene. These changes are not inherited, but researchers don’t understand what causes changes in the genes that lead to this form of non-Hodgkin lymphoma.

Risk Factors

The main risk factors for Burkitt lymphoma include:

  • Having HIV or another condition that weakens the immune system
  • Living somewhere in which malaria is common 
  • Having had a previous EBV infection

Who Is Immunocompromised?

Being immunocompromised means your immune system has a diminished capacity to fight off invaders like germs and cancerous cells. You may be immunocompromised if you:

  • Have a chronic disease that lowers your immune system’s defenses, such as HIV
  • Take medications that suppress your immune system, such as steroids
  • Are receiving medical treatments that weaken the immune system, such as chemotherapy
  • Have recently had an organ or bone transplant 
  • Are an older adult
  • Are a smoker

Burkitt lymphoma is a type of non-Hodgkin lymphoma. General risk factors for non-Hodgkin lymphoma include:

  • Family history: Having a close family member who has or has had non-Hodgkin lymphoma increases your risk of developing it. However, most people with Burkitt lymphoma don’t have a family history of the cancer.
  • Chemical exposure: There’s some evidence that exposure to certain drugs or chemicals such as benzene may increase your risk of non-Hodgkin lymphoma. 
  • Radiation exposure: Research also suggests that being exposed to radiation can increase your risk of developing some types of cancer, including non-Hodgkin lymphoma.
  • Autoimmune disease: Having certain autoimmune disorders such as lupus may increase your chances of developing non-Hodgkin lymphoma.

There’s limited research on the link between certain lifestyle habits and Burkitt lymphoma. It’s unlikely that lifestyle factors play a role in the development of this disease, especially considering that it primarily affects children.

Summary

Burkitt lymphoma is an aggressive cancer, and researchers are unaware of a direct cause. Certain risk factors, such as where you live, may increase your risk of developing certain types of Burkitt lymphoma.

It is associated with EBV infection in the endemic type seen in Africa. It can also be associated with HIV and other types of immunodeficiency. Some genetic factors have been linked to it as well.

A Word From Verywell

Just because you live in Africa, have HIV, or previously contracted the Epstein-Barr virus (EPV) doesn’t mean you will develop Burkitt lymphoma. Further research will allow experts to better understand why certain people–especially children–develop specific types of Burkitt lymphoma.

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12 Sources
Verywell Health uses only high-quality sources, including peer-reviewed studies, to support the facts within our articles. Read our editorial process to learn more about how we fact-check and keep our content accurate, reliable, and trustworthy.
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