Infectious Mononucleosis and Burkitt Lymphoma


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a) photo of a child with a very large swelling on the side of the neck. B) micrograph of a blood smear with a lot of white blood cells that are oddly shaped with white spots.
(a) Burkitt lymphoma can cause large tumors. (b) Characteristic irregularly shaped abnormal lymphocytes (large purple cells) with vacuoles (white spots) from a fine-needle aspirate of a tumor from a patient with Burkitt lymphoma. (credit a: modification of work by Bi CF, Tang Y, Zhang WY, Zhao S, Wang XQ, Yang QP, Li GD, and Liu WP; credit b: modification of work by Ed Uthman)

OpenStax Microbiology

Human herpesvirus 4, also known as Epstein-Barr virus (EBV), has been associated with a variety of human diseases, such as mononucleosis and Burkitt lymphoma. Exposure to the human herpesvirus 4 (HHV-4) is widespread and nearly all people have been exposed at some time in their childhood, as evidenced by serological tests on populations. The virus primarily resides within B lymphocytes and, like all herpes viruses, can remain dormant in a latent state for a long time.

When uninfected young adults are exposed to EBV, they may experience infectious mononucleosis. The virus is mainly spread through contact with body fluids (e.g., saliva, blood, and semen). The main symptoms include pharyngitis, fever, fatigue, and lymph node swelling. Abdominal pain may also occur as a result of spleen and liver enlargement in the second or third week of infection. The disease typically is self-limiting after about a month. The main symptom, extreme fatigue, can continue for several months, however. Complications in immunocompetent patients are rare but can include jaundice, anemia, and possible rupture of the spleen caused by enlargement.

In patients with malaria or HIV, Epstein-Barr virus can lead to a fast-growing malignant cancer known as Burkitt lymphoma. This condition is a form of non-Hodgkin lymphoma that produces solid tumors chiefly consisting of aberrant B cells. Burkitt lymphoma is more common in Africa, where prevalence of HIV and malaria is high, and it more frequently afflicts children. Repeated episodes of viremia caused by reactivation of the virus are common in immunocompromised individuals. In some patients with AIDS, EBV may induce the formation of malignant B-cell lymphomas or oral hairy leukoplakia. Immunodeficiency-associated Burkitt lymphoma primarily occurs in patients with HIV. HIV infection, similar to malaria, leads to polyclonal B-cell activation and permits poorly controlled proliferation of EBV+ B cells, leading to the formation of lymphomas.

Infectious mononucleosis is typically diagnosed based on the initial clinical symptoms and a test for antibodies to EBV-associated antigens. Because the disease is self-limiting, antiviral treatments are rare for mononucleosis. Cases of Burkitt lymphoma are diagnosed from a biopsy specimen from a lymph node or tissue from a suspected tumor. Staging of the cancer includes computed tomography (CT) scans of the chest, abdomen, pelvis, and cytologic and histologic evaluation of biopsy specimens. Because the tumors grow so rapidly, staging studies must be expedited and treatment must be initiated promptly. An intensive alternating regimen of cyclophosphamide,  vincristine,  doxorubicin, methotrexate, ifosfamide, etoposide, and cytarabine (CODOX-M/IVAC) plus rituximab results in a cure rate greater than 90% for children and adults.


Parker, N., Schneegurt, M., Thi Tu, A.-H., Forster, B. M., & Lister, P. (n.d.). Microbiology. Houston, Texas: OpenStax. Access for free at: