Substantial Epstein-Barr virus reactivation in a case of severe refractory ulcerative colitis: a possible role in exacerbation

Clin J Gastroenterol. 2021 Apr;14(2):584-588. doi: 10.1007/s12328-020-01319-w. Epub 2021 Jan 5.


Ulcerative colitis (UC) is an inflammatory bowel disease that causes chronic inflammation in the colon. 5-aminosalicylic acid and immunosuppressive medications such as corticosteroids, immunomodulators, and biologic agents are used to treat these patients. However, patients with UC who receive immunosuppressive medications may be at risk for certain opportunistic infections. Epstein-Barr virus (EBV) is one of those opportunistic infections, and its pathogenic role has been implicated in refractory UC, but its pathogenicity should be further investigated. Here, we report a surgical case of refractory UC that demonstrated a serologically post-infected pattern of EBV at admission but that later had a high load of EBV in both the peripheral blood and colonic mucosa. These findings suggest that EBV may have been reactivated in the colon, after which it damaged the colonic mucosa and aggravated inflammation in this patient with UC. Thus, EBV might lead to severity and a refractory response against corticosteroids and anti-TNFα agents, necessitating emergency surgery. Viral surveillance for EBV in patients with refractory UC may facilitate understanding of the patient's pathophysiology and predicting response to medications, and the development of antiviral intervention for those patients may improve their prognosis.

Keywords: Epstein–Barr virus; Inflammatory bowel disease; Ulcerative colitis.

Publication types

  • Case Reports

MeSH terms

  • Colitis, Ulcerative* / complications
  • Colitis, Ulcerative* / drug therapy
  • Epstein-Barr Virus Infections* / complications
  • Herpesvirus 4, Human
  • Humans
  • Inflammatory Bowel Diseases*