Learn 1 to 2 months before symptoms

Learn about infectious mononucleosis in this lesson, aka ‘the kissing disease.

‘ Find out more about the causes, symptoms and treatments of mono in this lesson.

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What is Mono?

The infection commonly known as ‘mono’ is officially termed infectious mononucleosis, and is an illness caused by the Epstein-Barr virus. The Epstein-Barr virus is in the herpes family, like varicella (the virus that causes chickenpox) and herpes simplex (the virus that causes fever blisters).Infectious mononucleosis has a very long incubation period of 4 to 8 weeks.

This means that a person can contract the virus, but it can take 1 to 2 months before symptoms even begin! Because it has such a long incubation period, it can be spread unknowingly. It’s contagious, but not as contagious as the common cold, for example.So how can you catch mono? Well, it’s most commonly spread by saliva.

Any activity in which people exchange saliva could result in contracting infectious mononucleosis. And while most people immediately think of kissing (mononucleosis is even nicknamed ‘the kissing disease’), sharing food or even sharing lip gloss or balm are more often the culprits.

Symptoms of Infectious Mononucleosis

Infectious mononucleosis is an interesting viral illness, in that some people who are affected with it may not even know it! About 85-95% of adults have antibodies against EBV, meaning at some time during their lives, they had mono.

Young children can contract mono, but experience only a mild fever and scratchy throat for perhaps a day. The bulk of patients who report significant symptoms are teenagers, usually ranging in age from 15-17 years.Symptoms include:

  • Sore throat (some patients have swollen tonsils with white patches)
  • Headache, body aches
  • Fever (102-104 degrees Fahrenheit)
  • Swollen lymph nodes in the back of the neck, under the jaw, and in the groin
  • Fatigue
  • General feeling of illness (or malaise)
  • Spleen enlargement
  • Rash

Some of the symptoms (most commonly sore throat, headache, fever) go away after several weeks, whereas other symptoms, such as fatigue, malaise, and splenic enlargement, can last up to 4-6 weeks following infection.

Treatments for Infectious Mononucleosis

There are no specific medications to target infectious mononucleosis. Instead, treatment is aimed at alleviating the symptoms.For a sore throat, drinking cool beverages, gargling with salt water, sucking on popsicles or throat lozenges may help with the pain of a sore throat.

Sometimes, patients can develop strep throat while infected with mononucleosis. If this occurs, your healthcare provider will likely place you on a course of antibiotics.Swollen tonsils are another problem. In some patients, the tonsils become so enlarged that it actually begins making breathing difficult. In these instances, your healthcare provider may place you on corticosteroids to decrease swelling of the tonsils.You can also get a headache and body aches.

Taking ibuprofen (Advil) or acetaminophen (Tylenol) is generally recommended. Aspirin should be avoided during viral illnesses in children and teenagers since this can cause Reye’s syndrome, which is a medical emergency.Fatigue can also happen with mono. Getting plenty of rest is important to shortening recovery. If your body feels worn out, it’s telling you that you’re pushing it too hard. Some patients feel very little fatigue, while others feel not quite up to par for 6 weeks following initial infection.You can also have spleen enlargement.

If your healthcare provider noted spleen enlargement on physical exam, he or she may limit your physical activity (no sports, no roughhousing, etc.) for 4 to 6 weeks following the initial infection. This is to prevent another rare complication, spleen rupture, which is life-threatening.

Lesson Summary

Infectious mononucleosis is a viral illness caused by the Epstein-Barr virus. It’s spread through saliva, so things like sharing foods and beverages or kissing could cause the illness.

After contracting the virus, it usually takes 4 to 8 weeks before symptoms appear. Some patients have very mild symptoms, while others (especially teenagers) experience more severe symptoms, usually a sore throat, headache, fever, and/or fatigue. Treatment usually revolves around alleviating symptoms with things like over-the-counter painkillers, cool drinks, and throat lozenges.

So, next time someone offers to share a drink with you, think carefully before taking that swallow!

Facts About Mono

Mono title slide
  • Mono, or infectious mononucleosis, is caused by the Epstein-Bar virus.
  • Mono is spread through saliva but can take 4-8 weeks to show symptoms.
  • Symptoms range in severity from headaches and tiredness to severe swelling of the throat.
  • Treatment targets the symptoms since there is no cure for the viral illness itself.

Learning Outcomes

Once you’ve completed the lesson on mononucleosis, you can assess your ability to:

  • Define mono and understand how it is spread
  • List the possible symptoms of mono
  • Specify some treatments for the illness

Medical Disclaimer: The information on this site is for your information only and is not a substitute for professional medical advice.

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