EBV (2023)


Epstein-Barr virus, frequently referred to as EBV, is a member of the herpesvirus family and one of the most common human viruses. The virus occurs worldwide, and most people become infected with EBV sometime during their lives. In the United States, as many as 95% of adults between 35 and 40 years of age have been infected. Infants become susceptible to EBV as soon as maternal antibody protection (present at birth) disappears. Many children become infected with EBV, and these infections usually cause no symptoms or are indistinguishable from the other mild, brief illnesses of childhood. In the United States and in other developed countries, many persons are not infected with EBV in their childhood years. When infection with EBV occurs during adolescence or young adulthood, it causes infectious mononucleosis 35% to 50% of the time.

Symptoms of infectious mononucleosis are fever, sore throat, and swollen lymph glands. Sometimes, a swollen spleen or liver involvement may develop. Heart problems or involvement of the central nervous system occurs only rarely, and infectious mononucleosis is almost never fatal. There are no known associations between active EBV infection and problems during pregnancy, such as miscarriages or birth defects. Although the symptoms of infectious mononucleosis usually resolve in 1 or 2 months, EBV remains dormant or latent in a few cells in the throat and blood for the rest of the person's life. Periodically, the virus can reactivate and is commonly found in the saliva of infected persons. This reactivation usually occurs without symptoms of illness.

EBV also establishes a lifelong dormant infection in some cells of the body's immune system. A late event in a very few carriers of this virus is the emergence of Burkitt's lymphoma and nasopharyngeal carcinoma, two rare cancers that are not normally found in the United States. EBV appears to play an important role in these malignancies, but is probably not the sole cause of disease.

Most individuals exposed to people with infectious mononucleosis have previously been infected with EBV and are not at risk for infectious mononucleosis. In addition, transmission of EBV requires intimate contact with the saliva (found in the mouth) of an infected person. Transmission of this virus through the air or blood does not normally occur. The incubation period, or the time from infection to appearance of symptoms, ranges from 4 to 6 weeks. Persons with infectious mononucleosis may be able to spread the infection to others for a period of weeks. However, no special precautions or isolation procedures are recommended, since the virus is also found frequently in the saliva of healthy people. In fact, many healthy people can carry and spread the virus intermittently for life. These people are usually the primary reservoir for person-to-person transmission. For this reason, transmission of the virus is almost impossible to prevent.

The clinical diagnosis of infectious mononucleosis is suggested on the basis of the symptoms of fever, sore throat, swollen lymph glands, and the age of the patient. Usually, laboratory tests are needed for confirmation. Serologic results for persons with infectious mononucleosis include an elevated white blood cell count, an increased percentage of certain atypical white blood cells, and a positive reaction to a "mono spot" test.

There is no specific treatment for infectious mononucleosis other than treating the symptoms. No antiviral drugs or vaccines are available. Some physicians have prescribed a 5-day course of steroids to control the swelling of the throat and tonsils. The use of steroids has also been reported to decrease the overall length and severity of illness, but these reports have not been published.

It is important to note that symptoms related to infectious mononucleosis caused by EBV infection seldom last for more than 4 months. When such an illness lasts more than 6 months, it is frequently called chronic EBV infection. However, valid laboratory evidence for continued active EBV infection is seldom found in these patients. The illness should be investigated further to determine if it meets the criteria for chronic fatigue syndrome, or CFS. This process includes ruling out other causes of chronic illness or fatigue.


In most cases of infectious mononucleosis, the clinical diagnosis can be made from the characteristic triad of fever, pharyngitis, and lymphadenopathy lasting for 1 to 4 weeks. Serologic test results include a normal to moderately elevated white blood cell count, an increased total number of lymphocytes, greater than 10% atypical lymphocytes, and a positive reaction to a "mono spot" test. In patients with symptoms compatible with infectious mononucleosis, a positive Paul-Bunnell heterophile antibody test result is diagnostic, and no further testing is necessary. Moderate-to-high levels of heterophile antibodies are seen during the first month of illness and decrease rapidly after week 4. False-positive results may be found in a small number of patients, and false-negative results may be obtained in 10% to 15% of patients, primarily in children younger than 10 years of age. True outbreaks of infectious mononucleosis are extremely rare. A substantial number of pseudo-outbreaks have been linked to laboratory error, as reported in CDC'sMorbidity and Mortality Weekly Report, vol. 40, no. 32, on August 16, 1991.

When "mono spot" or heterophile test results are negative, additional laboratory testing may be needed to differentiate EBV infections from a mononucleosis-like illness induced by cytomegalovirus, adenovirus, orToxoplasma gondii. Direct detection of EBV in blood or lymphoid tissues is a Research tool and is not available for routine diagnosis. Instead, serologic testing is the method of choice for diagnosing primary infection.

EBV-Specific Laboratory Tests

Laboratory tests are not always foolproof. For various reasons, false-positive and false-negative results can occur for any test. However, the laboratory tests for EBV are for the most part accurate and specific. Because the antibody response in primary EBV infection appears to be quite rapid, in most cases testing paired acute- and convalescent-phase serum samples will not demonstrate a significant change in antibody level. Effective laboratory diagnosis can be made on a single acute-phase serum sample by testing for antibodies to several EBV-associated antigens simultaneously. In most cases, a distinction can be made as to whether a person is susceptible to EBV, has had a recent infection, has had infection in the past, or has a reactivated EBV infection.

Antibodies to several antigen complexes may be measured. These antigens are the viral capsid antigen, the early antigen, and the EBV nuclear antigen (EBNA). In addition, differentiation of immunoglobulin G and M subclasses to the viral capsid antigen can often be helpful for confirmation. When the "mono spot" test is negative, the optimal combination of EBV serologic testing consists of the antibody titration of four markers: IgM and IgG to the viral capsid antigen, IgM to the early antigen, and antibody to EBNA.

IgM to the viral capsid antigen appears early in infection and disappears within 4 to 6 weeks. IgG to the viral capsid antigen appears in the acute phase, peaks at 2 to 4 weeks after onset, declines slightly, and then persists for life. IgG to the early antigen appears in the acute phase and generally falls to undetectable levels after 3 to 6 months. In many people, detection of antibody to the early antigen is a sign of active infection, but 20% of healthy people may have this antibody for years.

Antibody to EBNA determined by the standard immunofluorescent test is not seen in the acute phase, but slowly appears 2 to 4 months after onset, and persists for life. This is not true for some EBNA enzyme immunoassays, which detect antibody within a few weeks of onset.

Finally, even when EBV antibody tests, such as the early antigen test, suggest that reactivated infection is present, this result does not necessarily indicate that a patient's current medical condition is caused by EBV infection. A number of healthy people with no symptoms have antibodies to the EBV early antigen for years after their initial EBV infection.

Therefore, interpretation of laboratory results is somewhat complex and should be left to physicians who are familiar with EBV testing and who have access to the entire clinical picture of a person. To determine if EBV infection is associated with a current illness, consult with an experienced physician.

Additional Information about EBV Antibody Tests and Interpretation

Antibody tests for EBV can measure the presence and/or the concentration of at least six specific EBV antibodies. By evaluating the results of these different tests, the stage of EBV infection can be determined. However, these tests are expensive and not usually needed for the diagnosis of infectious mononucleosis.
It is not appropriate for CDC to interpret test results or to handle counseling for the public. We suggest that questions be directed to a local physician who is familiar with the patient's history and laboratory test results. In addition, CDC cannot recommend specific physicians for referral. Our general recommendation is for patients to consult with an infectious disease specialist or their local or state public health department.


The diagnosis of EBV infection is summarized as follows:


If antibodies to the viral capsid antigen are not detected, the patient is susceptible to EBV infection.

Primary Infection

Primary EBV infection is indicated if IgM antibody to the viral capsid antigen is present and antibody to EBV nuclear antigen, or EBNA, is absent. A rising or high IgG antibody to the viral capsid antigen and negative antibody to EBNA after at least 4 weeks of illness is also strongly suggestive of primary infection. In addition, 80% of patients with active EBV infection produce antibody to early antigen.

Past Infection

If antibodies to both the viral capsid antigen and EBNA are present, then past infection (from 4 to 6 months to years earlier) is indicated. Since 95% of adults have been infected with EBV, most adults will show antibodies to EBV from infection years earlier. High or elevated antibody levels may be present for years and are not diagnostic of recent infection.


In the presence of antibodies to EBNA, an elevation of antibodies to early antigen suggests reactivation. However, when EBV antibody to the early antigen test is present, this result does not automatically indicate that a patient's current medical condition is caused by EBV. A number of healthy people with no symptoms have antibodies to the EBV early antigen for years after their initial EBV infection. Many times reactivation occurs subclinically.

Chronic EBV Infection

Reliable laboratory evidence for continued active EBV infection is very seldom found in patients who have been ill for more than 4 months. When the illness lasts more than 6 months, it should be investigated to see if other causes of chronic illness or CFS are present.


How to interpret EBV test results? ›

If the results for VCA IgG, VCA IgM, and EBNA-1 IgG are negative, the patient is considered EBV susceptible. If tests for VCA IgM and VCA IgG are positive and those for EBNA-1 IgG are negative, a patient can be considered to have a primary or acute infection.

Why is my EBV not getting better? ›

EBV never truly goes away. Even if the symptoms subside, the virus will remain inactive inside your body until it is reactivated by a trigger. Some triggers include stress, a weakened immune system, taking immunosuppressants, or hormonal changes such as menopause.

What percentage of people are positive for EBV? ›

Epstein Barr virus (EBV) is a herpesvirus in which over 90% of the population worldwide has been infected.

What are the 6 stages of EBV? ›

For EBV we have a six-stage model of infection (naive Blast, GC, memory, Immediate early lytic, Early lytic and Late lytic) where each stage may or may not be regulated by the immune response. Therefore, there are in theory 26 = 64 possible combinations of regulated and unregulated stages.

What happens if EBV is positive? ›

If your test is positive, it could mean a few different things. Some types of EBV antibodies are present in higher numbers during an active infection. Other EBV antibodies mean that you had an infection in the past.

What does it mean to have a positive EBV antigen? ›

If someone has positive VCA-IgG and EA-D IgG tests, then it is highly likely that the person has a current or recent EBV infection. If the VCA-IgM is negative but VCA-IgG and an EBNA antibody are positive, then it is likely that the person tested had a previous EBV infection.

What makes EBV worse? ›

Events that trigger EBV reactivation include: Stress. Weak immune system. Menopause or hormone changes.

Will EBV always be positive? ›

Since over 90% of adults have been infected with EBV, most adults will show antibodies to EBV from infection years earlier. High or elevated antibody levels may be present for years and are not diagnostic of recent infection.

When should I be worried about EBV? ›

Since symptoms mirror those of the cold and flu, it can be hard to diagnose. But if you have cold or flu symptoms that aren't improving in a week or so, you might want to seek medical care. Your doctor can run a blood test for antibodies linked to EBV.

Is Epstein Barr hard to diagnose? ›

Diagnosing EBV infection can be challenging because the symptoms are similar to other illnesses. EBV infection can be confirmed with a blood test that detects antibodies. About nine out of ten of adults have antibodies that show that they have a current or past EBV infection.

Do 95% people have EBV? ›

EBV is a herpes virus that often causes no symptoms. However, it can cause infectious mononucleosis, or mono, in some people. After an EBV infection, the virus remains in a latent state within cells and, in some cases, may reactivate. EBV eventually infects about 95% of adults, but very few will develop MS.

How many cancers does EBV cause? ›

EBV infection increases a person's risk of getting nasopharyngeal cancer (cancer of the area in the back of the nose) and certain types of fast-growing lymphomas such as Burkitt lymphoma. It may also be linked to Hodgkin lymphoma and some cases of stomach cancer.

What foods should be avoided with EBV? ›

Avoiding sugar is also important for managing EBV symptoms, as sugar can increase inflammatory responses, impacting the immune system. Drinking water is also crucial in managing symptoms related to EBV. Drinking adequate amounts of water will maintain hydration while flushing toxins from the body.

What vitamins are good for Epstein-Barr virus? ›

Vitamin C – Strengthens the immune system and flushes EBV toxins from the liver. Nettle leaf – Provides vital micronutrients to the brain, blood, and central nervous system. Curcumin – Component of turmeric that helps strengthen the endocrine system and central nervous system.

What is the life expectancy of someone with chronic Epstein Barr virus? ›

Chronic active Epstein-Barr virus infection often results in poor prognosis. A large cohort study [18] in Japan reported that 43% of patients died during follow-up periods that ranged from 5 months to 12 years after the onset of severe CAEBV infection.

What is the normal range for EBV test? ›

Optimal Result: 0 - 18 U/mL. Interpret your laboratory results instantly with us. EBV-VCA, IgG is an antibody (protein) that is produced by the body in an immune response to an Epstein-Barr virus antigen.

What is the normal range for EBV PCR test? ›

The quantitative range is 35.0 IU/mL to 100,000,000 IU/mL, and the analytical sensitivity is 18.8 IU/mL.

What are the viral markers for EBV? ›

EBV-specific serology mainly includes the exploration of three or four markers using automated immunoassays: anti-viral capsid antigen (VCA) or total anti-EBV immunoglobulin M (IgM), anti-VCA, anti-early antigen (EA) or total anti-EBV immunoglobulin G (IgG), and anti-Epstein–Barr nuclear antigen (EBNA)-1 IgG.

What is the normal range for EBV IgM? ›

Optimal Result: 0 - 36 U/mL.


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