The Surprisingly Common Virus That Could Be Behind 7 Major Diseases

Did you know that something as innocent as a kiss could put you at risk for seven serious diseases? I know it sounds extreme, but if the person you’re kissing is a carrier of the Epstein Barr virus (EBV) — the virus that causes mononucleosis — then it’s an unfortunate side effect of smooching.

Epstein Barr is spread through saliva, which is why mono is called the kissing disease. Of course, there are other ways you can get it besides kissing, like sharing straws, toothbrushes or food. I can tell you firsthand that EBV is nothing to mess around with. I had mono as a teenager and it wiped me out for a month or more. Even worse, studies show that becoming infected with this common virus can put you at risk for serious diseases down the road. I wrote awhile back how the Epstein Barr virus increases your risk of six types of cancer. And now a new study shows that Epstein Barr puts you at risk for seven more serious diseases…

The serious stakes of a simple kiss…

A recent study from researchers at Cincinnati Children’s Hospital Medical Center found that Epstein Barr virus likely increases the risk of seven serious diseases. This laboratory study found that the Epstein Barr virus creates a protein that binds to human genes in areas that are associated with:

  • Systemic lupus erythematosus (SLE)
  • Multiple sclerosis (MS)
  • Rheumatoid arthritis (RA)
  • Juvenile idiopathic arthritis (JIA)
  • Inflammatory bowel disease (IBD)
  • Celiac disease
  • Type 1 diabetes

Now, this doesn’t mean EBV causes these diseases. There’s not enough research to make that claim. But it’s a likely contributor. More importantly, this research shows how viral or bacterial infections affect us on a genetic level, even when we think they’ve cleared up.

“Now, using genomic methods that were not available 10 years ago, it appears that components made by the virus interact with human DNA in the places where the genetic risk of disease is increased,” said John Harley, MD, PhD, Director of the Center for Autoimmune Genomics and Etiology (CAGE) at Cincinnati Children’s and a faculty member of the Cincinnati VA Medical Center.

Another key takeaway here is that most of the diseases on the list are autoimmune diseases. Researchers can’t say for sure why that is, but previous research on EBV and lupus can shed some light.

This research found that almost all kids who develop lupus are infected with EBV. They believe the connection comes from the mechanisms the immune system uses to get rid of the virus. So essentially, the Epstein Barr virus may mess with your immune system in a way that increases your risk of an autoimmune disease.

“This discovery is probably fundamental enough that it will spur many other scientists around the world to reconsider this virus in these disorders,” said Harley. “As a consequence, and assuming that others can replicate our findings, that could lead to therapies, ways of prevention, and ways of anticipating disease that don’t now exist.”

What you can do to protect yourself…

It’s amazing that one kiss can affect you for the rest of your life. You don’t think about that when you’re a teenager caught up in young love… nor should you. What you should think about (no matter what your age) is keeping your immune system strong, so you can fend off viruses like EBV.

Luckily, cultivating a strong immune system is simpler than it sounds. Many of the best ways to keep your immune system strong are healthy habits you may be doing already, like:

  • Eating a nutritious diet that’s high in fruits and vegetables and low in refined carbs, added sugar and processed food.
  • Reducing stress in your life and practicing calming activities like yoga, meditation and tai chi regularly.
  • Exercising daily.
  • Getting enough sleep.
  • Avoiding substances like cigarettes and alcohol that have a negative impact on the immune system.
  • Drinking plenty of water.
  • Getting enough of the immune-supporting powerhouse vitamin D.

See? These are all simple habits that you’re probably already doing…or that you know you should be doing if you aren’t already. There’s no way to guarantee you won’t get EBV. But if you’re following these golden rules of healthy living, it’s less likely you’ll ever come down with the kissing disease.

Most of these healthy habits are also tied to lower risks of developing autoimmune diseases, like those associated with Epstein Barr virus. Coincidence? Maybe not.


Epstein-Barr virus linked to seven serious diseases — MedicalXpress. Retrieved April 16, 2018.
B. Harley, et al. “Transcription factors operate across disease loci, with EBNA2 implicated in autoimmunity.” — Nature Genetics, 2018.
How to boost your immune system — Harvard Medical School. Retrieved April 16, 2018.
Sopori. “Effects of cigarette smoke on the immune system.” — Nature Reviews Immunology. May 2002;2(5):372-7.
Influence of Alcohol and Gender on Immune Response — National Institute of Alcohol Abuse and Alcoholism. Retrieved April 16, 2018.