Mononucleosis, known colloquially as “mono,” is a contagious illness that’s caused by the common Epstein-Barr virus. Nicknamed the “kissing disease” because Epstein-Barr is transmitted through the saliva, symptoms include extreme fatigue, fever, sore throat, head and body aches, swollen lymph nodes in the neck and armpits, swollen liver and/or spleen and rash. Most people recover in two to four weeks; however, some people may feel fatigued for several more weeks.
Now, new research suggests that the virus that causes mono may give rise to an increased risk for seven other dangerous immune-system diseases. Researchers at Cincinnati Children’s report that the Epstein-Barr virus also increases the risks of developing systemic lupus erythematosus (SLE), multiple sclerosis (MS), rheumatoid arthritis (RA), juvenile idiopathic arthritis (JIA), inflammatory bowel disease (IBD), celiac disease and type 1 diabetes. Altogether, these seven diseases affect approximately 8 million people in the United States alone.
“Epstein-Barr virus infects over 90 percent of adults, and the infection lasts for a lifetime,” said the study’s lead author, Dr. John Harley. “The new results are building a strong case that this virus is also involved in causing a number of autoimmune diseases for at least some patients.”
The recent study shows that a protein produced by the Epstein-Barr virus, called EBNA2, binds to multiple locations along the human genome. When clusters of the protein attach to the genetic code, the risk of the seven immune-system diseases rise. This is because qualities of EBNA2, known medically as “transcription factors,” turn on and turn off genes, which can change how cells form and function. The seven diseases are unrelated; however, they share a common set of transcription factors that are all affected by the EBNA2 protein from the Epstein-Barr virus.
The seven critical conditions that can stem from the Epstein-Barr virus are as follows:
Lupus is an autoimmune disease that occurs when the immune system attacks its own tissues and organs. Inflammation caused by lupus can affect many different body systems—including joints, skin, kidneys, blood cells, brain, heart and lungs. The most obvious sign of lupus—a facial rash that resembles the wings of a butterfly unfolding across both cheeks—occurs in many but not all cases of the condition.
Multiple sclerosis (MS) is a potentially disabling disease of the central nervous system, which includes the brain and the spinal cord. The immune system of a person with MS attacks the protective sheath of nerve fibers, causing communication problems between your brain and the rest of your body. Eventually, the disease can damage the nerves themselves.
Rheumatoid arthritis (RA) is a chronic inflammatory disorder that affects the joints, as well as other areas of the body. RA occurs when your immune system mistakenly attacks your own body’s tissues. RA takes a toll on the lining of the joints, causing a painful swelling that can result in bone erosion and joint problems.
Juvenile idiopathic arthritis
Juvenile idiopathic arthritis is the most common type of arthritis in children. It has similar effects to rheumatoid arthritis.
Inflammatory bowel disease
Inflammatory bowel disease (IBD) is an umbrella term used to describe disorders that involve chronic inflammation of the digestive tract. Types of IBD include ulcerative colitis (ulcers in the colon and rectum) and Crohn’s disease (inflammation of the lining of the digestive tract). Both conditions usually feature severe diarrhea, abdominal pain, fatigue and weight loss.
Celiac disease is diagnosed when a person reacts to eating gluten—a protein found in wheat, barley and rye. If you have celiac disease, eating gluten triggers an immune response that can damage the small intestine’s lining and prevent the absorption of some nutrients. The condition often causes diarrhea, fatigue, weight loss, bloating and anemia, and can have serious complications.
Type 1 diabetes
Type 1 diabetes is a chronic condition in which the pancreas produces little or no insulin. Insulin is a hormone needed to allow sugar (glucose) to enter cells to produce energy. With too little insulin, the body can’t move glucose from the blood into the cells, causing high blood glucose levels, dehydration and severe lack of energy. Symptoms usually begin to appear during childhood or adolescence, but the disease can develop in adults.