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Mononucleosis is a viral infection caused by exposure to the Epstein-Barr virus (EBV). Also referred to as “mono” or the “kissing disease,” mononucleosis most often strikes adolescents and young adults; adults usually have developed immunity to the virus. People with mononucleosis can feel tired and sick for weeks, but not everyone who is exposed to the virus will get mononucleosis. Once you’ve had mononucleosis, you’ll always carry the EBV virus, but you probably won’t get sick again.

How Contagious is Mono?

The EBV virus that causes mononucleosis is most often spread through contact with saliva, nose and/or throat mucus, or even tears. You can get it if you’re around an infected person who has a cough or cold or by sharing a toothbrush, glass, straw or other eating utensil with someone who actively has the virus. Since EBV is spread through saliva, it can be caught through kissing, which is how mononucleosis got the nickname as the “kissing disease.” Another virus, cytomegalovirus (CMV), can cause a similar disease. It takes about 4-6 weeks after exposure for someone to develop signs of mononucleosis. The most common symptoms are fatigue and weakness, sore muscles and abdominal pain (from an inflamed spleen), fever, headache, loss of appetite, sore throat and swollen glands. Swollen lymph nodes in the neck may be painful, and a pink, measles-like rash is also possible. People with mononucleosis might exhibit some but not all of these symptoms. Mononucleosis symptoms are similar to those for the flu or strep throat; if they persist for more than a week, see your health care provider, who will probably do a blood test to determine whether or not you have mononucleosis.

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Mono Treatment Options: Plenty of Rest!

There is no medicine or specific treatment for mononucleosis. For the virus to run its course, which usually takes several weeks, it’s important to get plenty of rest and drink lots of fluids. Salt water gargles, ice pops and lozenges will help soothe a sore throat. Children and teenagers with mononucleosis should not take aspirin – non-aspirin over-the-counter treatments such as acetaminophen or ibuprofen might help to relieve fever or headaches. In some severe cases, a doctor may prescribe corticosteroids (such as prednisone) to reduce gland swelling. While recovering from mononucleosis or taking care of someone who has it, you should also pay close attention to make sure that no complications develop, as these can become serious. Once you’re well enough to resume normal activities, take it easy at first, so you won’t risk a relapse. Limit strenuous activities and stay away from contact sports until you get the “all clear” from the doctor, to avoid potential spleen damage. If you’ve had mononucleosis, you may remain contagious for a few months afterwards. To make sure you don’t pass the virus on to others, wash your hands often, cover your mouth and nose if you sneeze or cough, don’t share any food or eating utensils – and don’t kiss anyone (sorry!).

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Possible Complications from Mononucleosis

Most people with mononucleosis recover completely over time, but some might suffer from complications. The most common complications are enlargement of the spleen, which causes severe pain in the upper left side of the stomach and should be dealt with immediately, to ensure that the spleen doesn’t rupture. Liver problems such as hepatitis or jaundice are other potential complications from mononucleosis. Other, less common complications include anemia, heart inflammation, neurological complications (such as meningitis, encephalitis, Bell’s palsy, Guillain-Barre syndrome or seizures) and low platelet count. People with already impaired immune systems (e.g., someone with HIV/AIDS or taking immunosuppressants following an organ transplant) are more susceptible to serious complications from the Epstein-Barr virus.