Is Epstein-Barr Virus Linked to Autoimmune Disease?

The Epstein-Barr virus (EBV) is a type of herpes virus. It is very common. It can cause mononucleosis, also known as mono.

According to a 2018 study, (EBV) may increase your risk of developing any of seven autoimmune diseases. Researchers say the virus appears to "switch on" certain genes. These genes make you more likely to develop one of these conditions.

Scientists have known about the link between EBV and some autoimmune diseases for a long time. This is the first study, though, that links all these illnesses to EBV. It is also the first to offer an explanation of how and why they're linked.

This is an important step in understanding this disease class.

This article looks at the link between EBV and seven autoimmune diseases. It also discusses how this might affect you if you've had EBV.

Epstein-Barr virus (EBV) positive
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Persistence of EBV Infection

The Epstein-Barr virus is one of the most common viruses that infect humans. Almost everyone carries it.

You most often hear about EBV as the cause of infectious mononucleosis. This disease is also called mono or the "kissing disease."

EBV is a member of the herpes virus family. Like other viruses in this group, once you contract it you always carry it.

EBV typically stays dormant. If it does become active again, a healthy immune system can easily get it back to a dormant state.

In some people, though, the initial infection can cause long-term problems. It may activate genes that affect how your immune system functions. This is just one of the possible long-term effects of EBV.

Recap

EBV is a member of the herpes family. It is very common. Most people will get it at some point during their lives. It usually stays dormant. In some people, though, it can cause long-term problems.

What is an Autoimmune Disease?

Your immune system sends out special cells to kill dangerous things. This includes invaders like viruses and bacteria.

Autoimmunity is like a case of mistaken identity. Your immune system incorrectly targets things that are supposed to be in your body, like an organ or type of tissue.

This triggers inflammation and tissue damage. People with these conditions can experience pain. They may also have fatigue. This happens because the body diverts resources to the immune response.

Other symptoms depend on what's being damaged. For example, your pancreas produces insulin. Insulin helps your body process sugars. If your immune system attacks your pancreas, you will have trouble processing sugars.

Recap

When you have an autoimmune disease, your immune system mistakes something in your body for an invader.

Predisposition and Gene Switching

Most of us think of genetics as fixed. It's not that simple, though. Illness, environment, and other variables can turn genes on or off.

Think of a breaker box. If you turn one switch off, you lose power to part of your house. Turn it on, the power comes back on. The same thing happens with genes and their positive or negative effect on the body.

Many people are born with genetic predispositions to certain illnesses. This doesn't mean they'll develop these diseases. They could get them under the right circumstances, though.

Recap

Some people are genetically predisposed to developing certain autoimmune conditions. This means they may develop these diseases under the right circumstances.

How the Epstein-Barr Virus Tricks the Immune System

The 2018 study showed that EBV seems to be able to switch on the genes that cause autoimmune diseases. Someone without a genetic predisposition, though, can contract EBV without this happening.

Researchers looked at the genetic impact of several proteins in EBV. They found that a protein called Epstein-Barr virus nuclear antigen 2 (EBNA2) interacts with half the known genes that put a person at risk for lupus.

Researchers also looked at hundreds of other illnesses. They discovered the same association with the other six linked to the virus.

Here is the complete list of diseases believed to be associated with EBV:

The study only looked at EBV in people with European ancestry. So far, though, people of other ancestries are not known to have a different risk profile for EBV.

Recap

The 2018 study found that EBV may switch on the genes associated with certain autoimmune diseases.

What This Means for You

This is just the first study to show that EBV can switch on these genes. This means that more research is needed.

The study does point to new directions for research. Some scientists believe this will change the way we think about autoimmune diseases and EBV.

In fact, this study had a swift impact. A multiple sclerosis study published in 2020 mentioned the study and the potential link between EBV and MS. Researchers added that antiviral treatments for MS are being studied.

Another 2020 study states: "Infection with Epstein-Barr virus (EBV) appears to be necessary for the development of multiple sclerosis." Its authors discuss methods of targeting the virus as a way to treat MS.

If the 2018 study is correct, it could lead to more effective treatments for many diseases.

Right now, there's no vaccine for EBV. The 2018 study findings may spur more research into a vaccine. A vaccine wouldn't just stop the spread of mono, it could also potentially prevent multiple life-long diseases.

Summary

The Epstein-Barr virus (EBV) is a type of herpes virus. It causes mononucleosis.

A 2018 study found a link between EBV and seven kinds of autoimmune diseases. 

In most poeple, EBV remains dormant. In people who are genetically predisposed to certain autoimmune diseases, it may "switch on" the genes associated with those conditions.

The 2018 study may point to new treatments for autoimmune diseases.

A Word From Verywell

You'll probably come in contact with the Epstein-Barr virus at some point in your life. If any of these seven autoimmune diseases run in your family, it's possible you have a genetic predisposition.

If you've been diagnosed with mono, talk to your doctor about the possible increased risk of autoimmune disease.

It is important to know the symptoms of these conditions. Early diagnosis and treatment are critical to your long-term health.

Frequently Asked Questions

  • What are the symptoms of Epstein-Barr?

    EBV symptoms include:

    • Fatigue
    • Fever
    • Inflammation in the throat
    • Swollen lymph nodes
    • Enlarged spleen
    • Inflamed liver
    • Rash
  • Can Epstein-Barr be cured?

    No. Epstein-Barr is a chronic virus that cannot be cured. It is usually dormant in the body, though. When symptoms do appear, they can be treated and managed.

  • How do you prevent yourself from getting Epstein-Barr?

    There is currently no vaccine to protect against Epstein-Barr. You can take steps to avoid catching it, though. Do not kiss or share food or beverages with someone who is or may be infected with the virus.

  • How common is Epstein-Barr?

    Epstein-Barr is very common. About 95% of people will get infected at some point in their lifetimes.

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5 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.
  1. Harley J, Chen X, Pujato M, et al. Transcription factors operate across disease loci, with EBNA2 implicated in autoimmunityNat Genet. 2018;50(5):699-707. doi:10.1038/s41588-018-0102-3

  2. Bar-Or A, Pender MP, Khanna R, et al. Epstein-Barr virus in multiple sclerosis: theory and emerging immunotherapiesTrends Mol Med. 2020;26(3):296‐310. doi:10.1016/j.molmed.2019.11.003

  3. Afrasiabi A, Parnell GP, Swaminathan S, Stewart GJ, Booth DR. The interaction of multiple sclerosis risk loci with Epstein-Barr virus phenotypes implicates the virus in pathogenesisSci Rep. 2020;10(1):193. doi:10.1038/s41598-019-55850-z

  4. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. About Epstein-Barr virus (EBV).

  5. American Family Physician. Common questions about infectious mononucleosis.