Epstein-Barr virus (EBV) is a persisting herpesvirus which is controlled by the adaptive immune response after primary infection and maintained in a latent state. However, reactivation or persistent replication is observed in situations where the immune response is compromised. Since intensive physical training has been reported to diminish immune function, increased EBV load may be a cause of reduced performance and decreased ability to sustain high training loads in competitive athletes. Samples drawn from 209 athletes during their regular follow-up appointments were tested. One hundred sixty-five individuals of similar age not active in competitive sports served as case-controls. EBV load was quantified in peripheral blood leucocytes (PBLs) by real-time PCR, and EBV antibodies were detected in plasma by ELISA and immunoblot analysis. EBV DNA was detectable in 25 of 209 athletes and in 26 of 165 controls. Of note, the EBV load per 10(5) PBLs was 6.44 +/- 1.75 in the case and 1.67 +/- 0.44 copies in the controls, yielding a high significant difference (P < 0.0001). However, EBV-specific IgG titers were significantly lower in athletes (150.4 +/- 10.73 U ml(-1) vs. 241.6 +/- 18.59 U ml(-1)). As monitored by immunoblotting, primary infections were detected with low prevalence, three in the case group and one in the control group. These findings demonstrate that EBV is present at higher levels in athletes, but the antibody response is lower in athletes than in the controls. J. Med. Virol. 82:446-451, 2010. (c) 2010 Wiley-Liss, Inc.