Does EBV cause cancer?
- Yes, Epstein Barr virus (EBV) increases the risk of some cancer types
- But, for most people that have the virus, it will not cause them any problems
What is EBV?
Epstein Barr (EBV) is a type of herpes virus that can spread through saliva. Most people will get EBV as a child and have it for the rest of their life. But, it doesn’t normally cause any symptoms or problems at all.
If people pick up EBV when they are older, they can get glandular fever (‘mono’ or ‘kissing disease’). Glandular fever can be very unpleasant, but it usually passes within a few weeks.
What cancers are linked to EBV?
EBV is a very common virus – more than 9 in 10 people are infected worldwide. But, very rarely the infection will go on to cause cancer. Less than 1 in 300 UK cancer cases are caused by EBV.
EBV can be linked to cancers in the UK, including:
- Just under half of all Hodgkin lymphoma cases
- 1 in 5 cases of Burkitts lymphoma, a rare type of Non-Hodgkin lymphoma
- 8 in 10 cases of nasopharyngeal cancers
How can EBV cause cancer?
We still don’t know for sure why some people develop cancer years after they get EBV or why this doesn’t happen in most people.
The virus infects B-cells that are part of our immune system, which protect the body against disease. It can interfere with the cells, causing them to grow and divide out of control.
It’s also likely that other things play a role in whether cancer develops. For example, people may be at a higher risk of EBV linked cancers if they also have another condition that alters their immune system.
Can I reduce my risk of EBV-linked cancer?
Most people get infected with EBV as a child and have it for life without ever experiencing any symptoms. That’s why reducing the risk of EBV-linked cancers is difficult. Most people are infected without knowing it, and we can’t predict who will develop cancer and who won’t.
Researchers are trying to make a vaccine that can either prevent EBV infection or stop EBV-linked cancers developing. We don't have one yet, but there are some early stage trials working on it.
There are other important things you can do to reduce your risk of cancer, such as not smoking, keeping a healthy weight and cutting down on alcohol. Find out more here.
Brown KF, Rumgay H, Dunlop C, et al. The fraction of cancer attributable to modifiable risk factors in England, Wales, Scotland, Northern Ireland, and the United Kingdom in 2015. Br. J. Cancer. (2018).
International Agency for Research on Cancer. Biological Agents. Volume 100B. A review of human carcinogens. (2012)
Thompson, M. P. and Kurzrock, R. Epstein-Barr Virus and Cancer. Clinical Cancer Research. 10(713), 803-821. (2004)