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What is Epstein-Barr Virus?

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Epstein-Barr virus (EBV) was discovered in the 1960s and named after the two scientists who identified it. It is a member of the herpes family of viruses and extremely widely spread. Health Scout claims that as many as 95% of Americans aged 35 to 40 could be infected.

What are the causes and who is at risk?

Young children are normally unlikely to contract the virus, as their immune systems are primed while they are still in the womb, the BBC reports. However, this immunity wears off in adolescence and the vast majority of infection occurs in people between the ages of 10 and 35.

In around 50% of cases, EBV causes infectious mononucleosis, the BBC claims. Mononucleosis is a contagious viral illness which initially attacks the lymph nodes in the neck, making them less effective at fighting diseases. It is spread through contact with the saliva of a person who already has the condition. So kissing, sharing drinks, eating utensils and toothbrushes could all result in infection.

Some health professionals claim that EBV is the cause of Chronic Fatigue Syndrome. It is also possible, but very unlikely, that the condition could lead to two rare forms of cancer – Burkitt’s lymphoma and nasopharyngeal carcinoma.

How is it diagnosed?

A doctor is usually able to provide a diagnosis on the basis of symptoms, but may also use a blood or laboratory test for confirmation.

What are the symptoms?

Initially, the symptoms of infectious mononucleosis can be indistinguishable from an ordinary cold or flu, but often become more severe as the illness progresses.

Common symptoms include:

The condition is very rarely fatal and symptoms usually last between 2 weeks and 8 months, with a maximum of 4 months. However, the virus does remain in the sufferer’s body and may on occasion reactivate. This reactivation is usually symptomless.

How is it treated?

Because the disease is usually self-limited, most patients do not require any medication to get better. A health professional usually recommends resting, and drinking plenty of fluids and avoiding any strenuous physical activity.

Steroids can be used to bring down severe swelling of the throat and tonsils but there are no drugs available to eliminate the virus altogether.

One celebrity who has suffered from EBV is pop diva Cher.

Images: Wadsworth and Wikimedia Commons

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