Multiple Sclerosis and the Epstein-Barr Virus
Last updated: March 2022
Multiple sclerosis (MS) is a chronic autoimmune disease. The immune system exists to defend the body from potentially harmful organisms like bacteria and viruses. In autoimmune disorders, the immune system becomes confused and attacks normal cells in the body. In MS, the immune cells attack brain and nerve cells, causing inflammation and nerve damage.1,2
What causes MS?
MS is a complicated disorder. It is not fully understood how people develop MS, but it is thought to be caused by a combination of factors. There are certain genes that are related to MS and that can be passed on through families. There are also risk factors from the environment. These include smoking and low vitamin D levels from too little sun exposure. Recent research has shown that there may also be a connection between MS and the Epstein-Barr virus (EBV).2
What is the Epstein-Barr virus?
The Epstein-Barr virus is one of the most common human viruses. Around 95 percent of the world population has had EBV at some time in their life. Once you have had an EBV infection, the virus lives in your body for the rest of your life. It lives in immune cells until it is activated again, like in people with MS.1
Many people come in contact with EBV as a child. It is usually passed through saliva. It rarely causes symptoms. When it does cause symptoms, they are generally mild. In children, the symptoms are often confused with other mild infections.3
The Epstein-Barr virus can cause mono
In some people, EBV can cause infectious mononucleosis, or “mono” as it is often called. Mono is an illness that usually occurs in teenagers and young adults. It causes fever, sore throat, fatigue, and sore lymph nodes. EBV is also related to certain cancers and autoimmune diseases like lupus and rheumatoid arthritis.3,4
How are MS and the Epstein-Barr virus connected?
Recent studies have found many ties between EBV and MS. Researchers can perform a blood test to see if you have antibodies that recognize EBV. If you do, that means that you have had EBV in the past. While many people around the world have been infected by EBV, every person living with MS has had EBV at some time in their life. A history of mono also has been shown to increase your risk of MS.2
Researchers have also noted that people living with MS have more EBV antibodies during a flare-up. They believe that EBV can become active again in the body and brain. The immune system sees the EBV and then sends signals to other cells to cause inflammation. This inflammation is thought to cause MS symptoms by damaging nerve cells.1
Does the Epstein-Barr virus cause MS?
Yes and no. Scientists call this the “fertile field” or “perfect storm” scenario. This means all of the factors must be just right for MS to develop. MS will not develop if you have not had an EBV infection before. However, an EBV infection alone cannot cause MS. There must be other risk factors like a family history of MS or environmental factors.1,2
Are there treatments for the Epstein-Barr virus?
As scientists learn more about MS, they are able to use that information to find new treatments. Right now, there is not an EBV vaccine. However, new research on MS has shown that destroying the immune cells that contain EBV might be effective.1
Those living with HIV are less likely to have MS. Scientists believe this is because HIV destroys these immune cells that contain EBV. Researchers are looking into drugs that work on the immune system to prevent EBV from becoming active again.1
If you have any questions about MS or EBV, speak to your doctor.
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