EBV and cancer

Electronmicroscope image of Eppstein Bar Virus

Infection with Epstein Barr virus (EBV) increases the risk of some cancers. But for most people, carrying EBV will not cause them any problems.

 

What is EBV?

EBV, or Epstein-Barr virus, is a very common virus – more than 9 in 10 people are infected worldwide. It spreads through saliva. The virus infects a type of cell called ‘B-cells’ that form part of our immune system – the body’s defence against disease.

Most people will get EBV as children and will not experience any symptoms. But if people pick up the infection when they are older, they can develop glandular fever (sometimes called ‘mono’ or ‘kissing disease’) as a result. Glandular fever can be very unpleasant, but it usually passes within a few weeks.

Once infected, a person remains a carrier of EBV for life. But the virus normally doesn’t cause any symptoms or problems at all.

 

What cancers are linked to EBV?

In rare cases, infection with EBV can be linked to cancer, including Hodgkin lymphoma, naso-pharyngeal cancer (a type of head and neck cancer) and Burkitts lymphoma.

Just under half of all Hodgkin lymphoma cases in the UK are linked to EBV infection.

8 in 10 cases of naso-pharyngeal cancer in the UK are caused by EBV.

Burkitts lymphoma is a type of Non-Hodgkin lymphoma and it is very rare in the UK. 1 in 5 cases of Burkitts lymphoma are linked to EBV infection.

Overall, less than 1 in 300 UK cancer cases are caused by EBV.

How can EBV cause cancer?

We still don’t know for sure why some people develop cancer years after being infected with EBV.

The virus can interfere with our immune cells, causing them to grow and divide out of control. But this doesn’t happen in most people, and it’s likely that other factors also play a role in whether or not cancer develops.
 

Reducing the risk

Most people get infected with EBV as a child and stay infected for life without ever experiencing any symptoms. That’s why reducing the risk of EBV linked cancers is difficult, because most people are infected without knowing it, and we can’t predict who will develop cancer and who won’t.

Researchers are trying to develop a vaccine that can either prevent EBV infection, or stop EBV-linked canacers developing. We don't have a vaccine to do this yet, but there are some early stage trials working on it.

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