Infectious Mononucleosis in Teens and Young Adults

What is infectious mononucleosis?

Infectious mononucleosis is a contagious disease. It is common in teenagers and young adults. It is also called mononucleosis, "mono," glandular fever, or  the "kissing disease." 

What causes infectious mononucleosis?

Infectious mononucleosis is typically caused by the Epstein-Barr virus (EBV). The cytomegalovirus (CMV) also causes a similar illness. Both viruses are members of the herpes simplex virus family. Consider the following statistics:

  • Most children who have the virus do not have any noticeable symptoms.

  • The cytomegalovirus is a group of viruses in the herpes simplex virus family. Most healthy persons who get the CMV virus have few, if any, symptoms and have no long-term effects on their health. Some people may develop symptoms of mononucleosis. 

  • The Epstein-Barr virus (EBV) may cause infectious mononucleosis in teens and young adults. However, even after the symptoms of infectious mononucleosis have disappeared, the EBV stays in a person's cells forever. The virus can become active again, but it usually doesn't cause symptoms. The same is true for CMV.

What are the symptoms of infectious mononucleosis?

Mononucleosis usually lasts 2 to 4 months. Malaise and difficulty concentrating may last for months longer. EBV is not, however, a cause of chronic fatigue syndrome. The following are the most common symptoms of mononucleosis. However, each adolescent may experience symptoms differently. Symptoms may include:

  • Fever

  • Headache

  • Swollen lymph glands in the neck, armpits, and groin

  • Long periods of tiredness and muscle aches

  • Sore throat due to tonsillitis, which often makes swallowing difficult

  • Enlarged spleen

  • Liver problems. For example, mild liver damage that can cause temporary jaundice, a yellow discoloration of the skin and eye whites due to abnormally high levels of bilirubin (bile pigmentation) in the blood

Once a person gets mononucleosis, the virus says inactive in the body for the rest of his or her life. Once a person gets the Epstein-Barr virus, he or she is not likely to get mononucleosis again, unless it is from CMV.

How is infectious mononucleosis diagnosed?

Your child's health care provider will do a complete medical history and physical examination. His or her symptoms may be enough to diagnose mononucleosis. The diagnosis may be confirmed with blood tests, including:

  • White blood cell count

  • Antibody test

How is infectious mononucleosis spread?

Mononucleosis is often spread by contact with infected saliva (spit). According to the CDC, symptoms can take between four to six weeks to appear and usually do not last beyond four months. It's hard to keep it from spreading because even symptom-free people can carry the virus in their saliva.

What is the treatment for infectious mononucleosis?

Symptoms may be eased by:

  • Resting for about 1 month. This will give the body's immune system time to destroy the virus.

  • Taking corticosteroids. These drugs help reduce swelling of the throat and tonsils.