Mononucleosis (“mono” for short) is an infectious disease that most commonly occurs in adolescents and young adults. It is also called glandular fever, since it causes the lymph nodes to swell, and kissing disease, because it is mainly transmitted through saliva.
What is mononucleosis?
Infectious mononucleosis is caused by the Epstein-Barr virus (EBV), a member of the herpes family. It is a widespread virus that is primarily passed on through direct or indirect contact with saliva. Exposure to this virus does not necessarily lead to infection. In many cases, it will even go unnoticed by the colonized host, since it causes no harm. In fact, nearly half of young people have already had it, without developing any significant symptoms.
Carriers can have the virus for life without ever showing any signs of it.
Mono lasts only one to three weeks, but the fatigue can continue much longer and the virus remains infectious for several months. This is why it is advised to wait six months after the onset of initial symptoms to donate blood.
The incubation period for mononucleosis – in other words, the time from initial exposure to the beginning of symptoms – is four to six weeks. The virus enters the body through the mouth then gradually makes its way into the bloodstream and the lymph nodes.
The most common symptoms are:
- Extreme fatigue
- Severe sore throat (with difficulty swallowing)
- Enlarged lymph nodes (sides and back of neck, underarms, above the groin)
- High fever
- Loss of appetite
- Generalized muscle soreness (in some cases)
How to get back on your feet
Most cases of mononucleosis are benign. The best way to recover is to stay in bed for a few days, drink plenty of water or fruit juice to avoid dehydration, gargle with salt water throughout the day and eat cool foods to soothe the throat. You should also avoid intense physical activity and contact sports for several months. Acetaminophen can also help to reduce the fever.
IMPORTANT: Never give acetylsalicylic acid (e.g. Aspirin) to a child under 18.
Since mononucleosis is caused by a virus, it cannot be cured with antibiotics. The good news is that you can only get it once.
The most common complication of this disease is rupture of the spleen (since mono causes swelling and weakening of this organ). While usually painless, this complication can nevertheless lead to low blood pressure and shock. In such cases, emergency surgery is required. While the risk is extremely low, it should not be ignored.
To prevent this complication, avoid sports and heavy lifting for at least two months.
Preventing the spread of mono
Here are some ways to avoid catching mono from someone who has it:
- Avoid kissing on the mouth.
- Do not share food.
- Do not use the same drinking glasses, utensils or dishes without first washing them well.
- Thoroughly wash your hands after contact with the person or with objects he or she has touched.
- Avoid exposure to the person’s sneezes and coughs.
If you have questions about mononucleosis and its treatment, talk to your family pharmacist for help and expert advice!