Epstein-Barr virus and its association with disease - a review of relevance to general practice

BMC Fam Pract. 2019 May 14;20(1):62. doi: 10.1186/s12875-019-0954-3.


Background: General practitioners encounter the vast majority of patients with Epstein-Barr virus-related disease, i.e. infectious mononucleosis in children and adolescents. With the expanding knowledge regarding the multifaceted role of Epstein-Barr virus in both benign and malignant disease we chose to focus this review on Epstein-Barr virus-related conditions with relevance to the general practitioners. A PubMed and Google Scholar literature search was performed using PubMed's MeSH terms of relevance to Epstein-Barr virus/infectious mononucleosis in regard to complications and associated conditions.

Main text: In the present review, these included three early complications; hepatitis, splenic rupture and airway compromise, as well as possible late conditions; lymphoproliferative cancers, multiple sclerosis, rheumatoid arthritis, and chronic active Epstein-Barr virus infection. This review thus highlights recent advances in the understanding of Epstein-Barr virus pathogenesis, focusing on management, acute complications, referral indications and potentially associated conditions.

Conclusions: Hepatitis is a common and self-limiting early complication to infectious mononucleosis and should be monitored with liver tests in more symptomatic cases. Splenic rupture is rare. Most cases are seen within 3 weeks after diagnosis of infectious mononucleosis and may occur spontaneously. There is no consensus on the safe return to physical activities, and ultrasonic assessment of spleen size may provide the best estimate of risk. Airway compromise due to tonsil enlargement is encountered in a minority of patients and should be treated with systemic corticosteroids during hospitalization. Association between lymphoproliferative cancers, especially Hodgkin lymphoma and Burkitt lymphoma, and infectious mononucleosis are well-established. Epstein-Barr virus infection/infectious mononucleosis as a risk factor for multiple sclerosis has been documented and may be linked to genetic susceptibility. Chronic active Epstein-Barr virus infection is rare. However, a general practitioner should be aware of this as a differential diagnosis in patients with persisting symptoms of infectious mononucleosis for more than 3 months.

Keywords: Airway compromise; Epstein-Barr virus. Infectious mononucleosis; Family practice; General practice; Hepatitis; Lymphoproliferative cancer; Multiple sclerosis; Rheumatoid arthritis; Splenic rupture.

Publication types

  • Review

MeSH terms

  • Airway Obstruction / diagnosis
  • Airway Obstruction / etiology
  • Airway Obstruction / therapy
  • Arthritis, Rheumatoid / etiology
  • Burkitt Lymphoma / diagnosis*
  • Burkitt Lymphoma / etiology
  • Burkitt Lymphoma / therapy
  • Chronic Disease
  • Epstein-Barr Virus Infections / complications
  • Epstein-Barr Virus Infections / diagnosis
  • Epstein-Barr Virus Infections / therapy
  • General Practice*
  • Hematologic Neoplasms / etiology
  • Hepatitis, Viral, Human / diagnosis*
  • Hepatitis, Viral, Human / etiology
  • Hepatitis, Viral, Human / therapy
  • Herpesvirus 4, Human
  • Hodgkin Disease / diagnosis*
  • Hodgkin Disease / etiology
  • Hodgkin Disease / therapy
  • Humans
  • Infectious Mononucleosis / complications
  • Infectious Mononucleosis / diagnosis*
  • Infectious Mononucleosis / therapy
  • Lymphadenopathy / complications
  • Multiple Sclerosis / etiology
  • Palatine Tonsil
  • Splenic Rupture / diagnosis*
  • Splenic Rupture / etiology