Epstein-Barr Virus - Is this a Herpes Virus?

The short answer to this is yes. The Epstein-Barr Virus (or EBV) is a member of the herpes family of viruses. It is specifically known as Human Herpesvirus 4 and is a very common virus that is in constant circulation through the human population. This does not mean it is the same as other herpes viruses; there are a number of different but related herpes viruses that affect human populations, and the Epstein-Barr Virus is just one of them. It is not, for example, the same Herpes virus as the one that causes cold sores. It is hard to be sure of how many people suffer from this virus each year because the severity of symptoms vary from completely asymptomatic to severe. There are also many cases that go undiagnosed.


There are actually over 100 herpes viruses that we know of, but there are nine herpes viruses that infect only humans. Human Herpesvirus4 is one of the most common of all the herpes viruses.


"Of the more than 100 known herpesviruses, 8 routinely infect only humans: herpes simplex virus types 1 and 2, varicella-zoster virus, cytomegalovirus, Epstein-Barr virus, human herpesvirus 6 (variants A and B), human herpesvirus 7, and Kaposi's sarcoma virus or human herpesvirus 8. A simian virus, called B virus, occasionally infects humans. All herpes viruses can establish latent infection within specific tissues, which are characteristic for each virus." (Whitley, Medical Microbiology).


What is the Epstein-Barr Virus?


EBV is a common virus that spreads readily through bodily fluids (most commonly through saliva, but also via genital fluids). It is found all over the world and is associated with a number of diseases. The most common of these diseases is mononucleosis or glandular fever. This is sometimes known traditionally as 'kissing disease' because it can be so easily spread through saliva. The virus is also associated with other conditions, including auto-immune conditions and precancerous and cancerous conditions. Still, it is essential to remember that most people are infected with the Epstein-Barr Virus in childhood. For the vast majority, there are either no symptoms or only a mild illness that is never recognized as being caused by EBV. The majority of people who have been infected with EBV are not even aware of the fact that they have it. Around 90% of adults, when tested, are found to have antibodies that prove that they have been infected by the Epstein-Barr virus at some point in their lives.


Symptoms of Infectious Mononucleosis Caused by the EBV

Mum holding a child who is sick With Epstein-Barr Virus
Child With EBV


There are not always symptoms of infection with EBV, but when it causes Infectious Mononucleosis, the symptoms include


  • Fatigue/tiredness (sometimes severe)
  • Fever (raised body temperature/chills)
  • Sore throat
  • Stiff neck
  • Swollen lymph nodes (glands)
  • Headache
  • Rash
  • Swollen spleen (abdominal pain)
  • Swollen liver


Children are less likely to experience symptoms, whereas teenagers and adults are more likely to get the symptoms of infectious mononucleosis (glandular fever). It is much more common for teenagers and younger adults between the ages of 15 and 24. This is a self-limiting illness that - while unpleasant - passes on its own without treatment in between two and four weeks. For some people, the severe fatigue caused by the condition persists and continues on for longer, even lasting weeks. This post-viral fatigue generally passes in time. A quick and easy blood test can determine whether the person has the virus. EBV becomes inactive after the body has been infected. It does not go away but instead becomes what is known as 'latent.' It is possible for the virus to become active again, but this is much more likely in people who are immunocompromised, which means that their immune system is weakened and less capable of keeping viruses at bay.


Transmission of the EBV

It is not just direct contact such as kissing or sexual contact that spreads EBV, although people commonly associate it with this type of transmission. Simply sharing food and drink, or using the same household objects such as towels, cups, forks, knives, or spoons, can spread the infection. In children, the virus is commonly spread by sharing toys (young children often put toys in their mouths). EBV can also be spread through organ transplants and blood transfusions.

One of the reasons why the Epstein-Barr virus is so easily transmitted is that people tend to spread the virus for a relatively long time after contracting it and before experiencing any actual symptoms themselves. The virus can also be spread if it reactivates.


Treatment for the EBV

Doctor holding medicine for a woman in the background who has EBV
Treatment for Epstein-Barr Virus


There is no cure for Epstein-Barr Virus, and there is no medical treatment for it other than to treat the symptoms. Doctors tend to recommend that people experiencing the symptoms of EBV Infection get plenty of rest, drink plenty of fluids, and treat pain with common non-prescription medicines. Secondary bacterial infections are common with Infectious Mononucleosis, and these can be treated with antibiotics if deemed necessary by a healthcare practitioner. The virus itself cannot be treated with antibiotics because it is not caused by a bacterial infection. There is some evidence that can suggest the use of antibiotics during infection with the virus can result in a rash.


Avoiding Human Herpesvirus 4


The Epstein-Barr Virus is particularly hard to avoid. It is often transmitted by carriers who are asymptomatic, and it spreads easily. Avoiding EBV requires the same preventative measures as avoiding other viruses; not sharing utensils, frequent hand washing, and a healthy lifestyle will all help. Maintaining a healthy diet and getting enough sleep are good ways of supporting the immune system so that if you do come into contact with a virus, your body is in a good starting position to fight it off and to recover quickly if you do become infected.


Herpes and the EBV

Positive EBV blood test with other test tubes in background
Positive EBV Test


Epstein-Barr Virus is known as one of the most common viral infections, and many people are unaware that it is part of the herpes family of viruses. Like many other herpes viruses, it spreads easily, is difficult to treat, and lies latent in the body after infection.

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