Often referred to as the "kissing disease," mononucleosis is a common ailment caused by the Epstein-Barr virus that is transmitted through saliva.
While you can get the virus through kissing, you also can be exposed through a cough or sneeze, or by sharing cups or utensils with someone who is infected. According to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, up to 95 percent of people will be infected with the Epstein-Barr virus at some point in their lives, with approximately 1 in 4 people developing infectious mononucleosis, or mono.
“Mono is very common and contagious, although not as contagious as some infections, such as the common cold,” says Dr. Tina Ardon, a family medicine physician at Mayo Clinic’s Florida campus.
Although mononucleosis can affect anyone, it is more common in adolescents and young adults in particular. “They are more prone because of how it spreads,” says Dr. Ardon, adding that mononucleosis can occur at any time but is more prevalent during cold and flu season.
Is it mononucleosis or something else?
Dr. Ardon says that many with Epstein-Barr virus infections will be asymptomatic, but others will have symptoms that mimic other illnesses, such as fever, sore throat and swollen glands.
“Other symptoms of mono, including fatigue, can last for several weeks and can have an enormous impact on quality of life, school, activities and so on,” says Dr. Ardon.
A blood test is available to help confirm the diagnosis of mononucleosis.
Treatment is usually focused on rest and medications to aid with specific symptoms, if needed, she adds.
While mononucleosis isn’t dangerous for most people, Dr. Ardon notes that some individuals can have rarer complications that may include problems with their liver, low blood or platelet counts or nervous system issues. It also can cause serious challenges for those patients who have a suppressed immune system, such as those on chemotherapy or with HIV/AIDS.
The best protection
Since there is no vaccine for the Epstein-Barr virus, Dr. Ardon says it is important to practice good general hygiene like hand-washing.
If you are diagnosed with mononucleosis, she recommends keeping your distance. “You can prevent spreading the virus to others by not kissing, [and not] sharing food, dishes, glasses and other personal items,” says Dr. Ardon. “And cover your mouth and nose when sneezing or coughing. This is important when it comes to preventing the spread of all viruses, including mono.”