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Infectious Mononucleosis

  • Overview

    Infectious mononucleosis, more commonly known as "mono", is a viral illness characterized by flu-like symptoms, fatigue and swollen lymph glands. It's long been nicknamed the "kissing disease" as it's easily transmitted through saliva.

    • Mono is contagious and difficult to prevent.
    • Symptoms last about one to two months.
    • Once you have had mono, the virus remains inactive in the throat and blood cells for the rest of your life.
    • Almost 95 percent of adults have been exposed to the virus.
    • Antibiotics don't work; the best treatment is rest and plenty of fluids.

    How Boston Children's Hospital approaches mononucleosis

    Children's has created two Web sites directly aimed at young women and young men to discuss conditions that they may be exposed to, including mono. The mission of these Web sites (youngwomenshealth.org and youngmenshealthsite.org) is to help teens, their parents, teachers and health care providers improve their understanding of normal health and development, as well as specific diseases and conditions.

    Boston Children's Hospital 
    300 Longwood Avenue
    Boston MA 02115

     617-355-7181
  • In-Depth

    What is infectious mononucleosis?

    Infectious mononucleosis, more commonly known as "mono", is a viral illness characterized by flu-like symptoms, fatigue and swollen lymph glands. It's long been nicknamed the "kissing disease" as it's easily transmitted through saliva.

    Extremely contagious, mono is also difficult to prevent as many people with the virus display no symptoms. Once you or your child has had mono, the virus remains inactive in the throat and blood cells for life.

    What causes infectious mononucleosis?

    Mono is either caused by the Epstein-Barr virus (EBV) or the cytomegalovirus. Both are members of the herpes simplex virus family. It's often spread through contact with infected saliva (such as kissing, sneezing or sharing a glass). According to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, mono is difficult to prevent because even symptom-free people can carry the virus in their saliva.

    Is infectious mononucleosis common?

    The Epstein-Barr virus that causes mono is very common. More specifically:

    • Approximately 95 percent of adults in the United States between the ages of 35 and 40 have been exposed to the Epstein-Barr virus.
    • Uninfected adolescents and young adults who come in contact with the virus have a 50 percent chance of developing symptoms.
    • Epstein-Barr virus can reactivate periodically, however, usually without symptoms.
    • Only 20 percent of adults infected with the cytomegalovirus will develop symptoms.

    What are the symptoms of infectious mononucleosis?

    Mono usually lasts for one to two months. While symptoms may vary child to child, the most common include:

    • fever
    • swollen lymph glands in the neck, armpits and groin
    • constant fatigue
    • sore throat due to tonsillitis, which often makes swallowing difficult
    • enlarged spleen
    • mild liver damage that can cause temporary jaundice (a yellow discoloration of the skin and eye whites).

    Once you have had mononucleosis, the virus remains inactive in the throat and blood cells for the rest of your life. The virus can reactivate, but usually without symptoms.

  • Tests

    How does a doctor know that it's infectious mononucleosis?

    Mono is usually diagnosed based on a physical exam and reported symptoms. In addition, certain tests can confirm the diagnosis including:

    • white blood cell count
    • heterophile antibody test or monospot test.
  • Mono has no cure, but symptoms will go away on their own in four- to eight-weeks. However, there are steps you can take to make yourself or your child feel better.

    Treatment will most often include:

    • rest
    • eating healthy foods
    • drinking lots of fluids
    • in some cases, you or your child may be given corticosteroids, a type of steroid that will reduce swelling of the throat and tonsils.
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