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While the exact role viruses play in the development of multiple sclerosis is yet to be determined, it is known that they correlate in some way, especially the strains of herpesvirus that cause Epstein-Barr (mononucleosis) and potentially chickenpox.

Multiple sclerosis has long been a source of contention for researchers, with the exact causes and triggers to the disease remaining elusive. That’s bad news for patients longing for something more than a temporary treatment to ease the symptoms and slow progression. Without an answer as to how multiple sclerosis is caused, finding a cure is next to impossible.

However, as with some other autoimmune diseases, much research has been focused on a link between viral triggers and MS. What’s the role of viruses in the development of multiple sclerosis? That’s a touchy subject, but there does seem to be a connection in some ways.

Genetic susceptibility to multiple sclerosis

While research continuously points toward a connection between viruses and multiple sclerosis, as a possible trigger, this can only work if the initial environment is right. For example, a thousand tons of snow could be dumped in the Bahamas, but that snow would melt because the environment doesn’t support it – the air is too warm.

Similarly, a person has to be susceptible to multiple sclerosis for a virus to potentially trigger the development of the disease in an individual patient. If it only took a virus, many more people would have MS. While the reason for susceptibility isn’t known, other risk factors play a role in the development of MS, including:

  • Age – those between 15 and 50 are most at risk
  • Gender – genetic females are three times as likely as genetic men to develop MS
  • Family – having an immediate family member with MS increases risk
  • Race – Caucasians with Northern European ancestry are at the highest risk
  • Climate – people living in southern Australia, New Zealand, the northern US, and Canada develop MS at higher rates
  • Autoimmune disease – the presence of thyroid disease, irritable bowel syndrome, and type 1 diabetes are risk factors
  • Smoking – among those experiencing the initial symptoms of MS, smokers are more likely to relapse
While none of these risk factors of MS are a guarantee that a person will eventually develop multiple sclerosis, the greatest risk lies with these individuals. Add to that a history of certain types of infections, and the ultimate cause of MS being triggered becomes a little clearer.

Infectious disease and MS

Not all infectious diseases seem to have a link that could be the trigger of the autoimmune reaction causing MS. However, researchers have found that some antibodies that attack the white matter (myelin) in the central nervous system could be initially created in an attempt to stave off a particular strain of viruses that never leave the system.

Studies now are highly focused on Epstein-Barr, a herpes virus that causes mononucleosis in teens and people in their early twenties, as a potential trigger for MS. The related herpes virus that causes chicken pox could also be a factor.

Epstein-barr and MS

Epstein-Barr causes mono, which can take a teenager or twenty-something down for weeks. However, when contracted by smaller children, it often presents as nothing more than a bad cold, perhaps with some flu-like symptoms that resolve fairly quickly. About nine out of 10 people are affected by Epstein-Barr at some point, a very high percent of the population.

Why is this of interest in the MS community? Because nearly one hundred percent of individuals with MS have had exposure to Epstein-Barr. And this is known because this herpes virus never leaves the body. Therefore, it follows that the body retains some antibodies to the virus.

One theory is that the antibodies attacking the myelin in the central nervous system are very related to those that are created to combat Epstein-Barr (or even other herpes virus strains like chickenpox). Some scientists propose that there may be a similarity in the makeup of myelin to the viruses, which prompts the attack by those antibodies.

While it seems that those who have been exposed to EBV (Epstein-Barr virus) or varicella zoster (the official name for chickenpox) are more at risk for multiple sclerosis, the actual relationship between the viruses and the disease remains a mystery, one science is still trying to solve in order to find a breakthrough prevention or treatment for multiple sclerosis.

This could also help tremendously with several other autoimmune diseases, since a number of them have potentially been linked to these strains of herpes viruses. Currently, Epstein-Barr is proposed to be linked to rheumatoid arthritis, IBS (irritable bowel syndrome), and type 1 diabetes

How MS reacts to viruses

On the flip side, those with multiple sclerosis may have harsher reactions to viruses than those who don’t suffer from MS. This is because viruses tend to exacerbate symptoms of MS, which could lead to discomfort or could trigger a full relapse of symptoms.

In a patient with multiple sclerosis, the immune system is already compromised by the malfunction that causes the attack on the nervous system. Therefore, it’s not strong enough to stave off every bacterium and virus that comes along, with far fewer resources and less strength than the immune system of someone with “normal” functionality. Therefore, it would make sense that someone with MS would fall ill more easily than someone who doesn’t have the disease, and that symptoms of the illness would be more severe and last longer than in the average individual.

It’s crucial for MS patients to get treatment for viruses as soon as possible in order to avoid a potential relapse and further damage to the CNS.

Conclusion

While the exact role viruses play in the development of multiple sclerosis is yet to be determined, it is known that they correlate in some way, especially the strains of herpes virus that cause Epstein-Barr (mononucleosis) and potentially chickenpox. At the same time, the cause can’t be direct without some sort of susceptibility to MS initially, or a vast majority of the population would have MS.

Knowing the risk factors for multiple sclerosis can help determine if having been exposed to EBV will more likely cause a problem for you, since those who fall into specific categories may be more susceptible to MS to start with.

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