What is Infectious Mononucleosis?

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  • Written By: Marjorie McAtee
  • Edited By: W. Everett
  • Last Modified Date: 12 October 2019
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Infectious mononucleosis is a viral disease caused by the Epstein Barr Virus (EBV), a type of herpesvirus. EBV infection is also known as mono or the kissing disease because it is often spread through direct contact with saliva. Mononucleosis occurs all over the world and most people become infected with the virus sometime during their lives. EBV infection often occurs in children without causing severe symptoms, but adolescents and adults who contract the virus may experience a more debilitating disease process that can last for up to four months. While the symptoms of EBV infection typically go away on their own after one or two months, the virus can remain dormant inside the patient's body for life, occasionally becoming active and spreading to others without causing symptoms in the host.

Most cases of infectious mononucleosis occur in adolescents and adults younger than 35 years of age. Symptoms include sore throat, fever, fatigue and swollen lymph nodes. In more severe infections, swelling of the liver or spleen can occur. Rarely, the infection can spread to the central nervous system or heart, and it can also cause the spleen to burst. Any of these situations is considered a medical emergency. Death from mononucleosis infection is, however, quite rare.


Most patients with infectious mononucleosis recover in one to four months. Symptoms usually appear four to six weeks after exposure to the virus. The virus typically spreads through direct contact with saliva, so those infected should avoid kissing others or sharing utensils, drinking glasses, and toothbrushes. Once the disease runs its course, symptoms typically go away on their own, never to recur. EBV, however, remains in the body and can reactivate later in life, causing the spread of the disease to others.

Infectious mononucleosis is normally diagnosed through a monospot test, a type of blood test that checks for the Epstein Barr Virus in the body. Infectious mononucleosis is a viral disease that is not usually fatal, so treatment often involves bed rest and appropriate self-care. Those infected with EBV are generally asked to stay in bed and avoid contact with others at school or work until the virus runs its course. Throat lozenges can be used to relieve the sore throat associated with infectious mononucleosis, and acetaminophen or ibuprofen may be taken to relieve the pain of head and body aches. If swelling of the tonsils, lymph nodes, throat, liver, or spleen is severe, corticosteroid drugs may be administered to prevent the life-threatening complications that can occur with inflammation.


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