What is infectious mononucleosis?
Infectious mononucleosis is characterized by swollen lymph glands, fever, sore throat, and chronic fatigue. It’s often spread through contact with infected saliva from the mouth. Symptoms can take between 4 to 6 weeks to appear and usually do not last beyond 4 months. Transmission is impossible to prevent because even symptom-free people can carry the virus in their saliva.
What causes infectious mononucleosis?
Infectious mononucleosis is caused by the Epstein-Barr virus (EBV). A variant of mononucleosis that is milder than EBV infectious mononucleosis is caused by the cytomegalovirus (CMV). Both EBV and CMV are members of the herpes virus family:
- In the U.S., most adults between 35 and 40 years old have been infected with the Epstein-Barr virus, which is a very common virus. When children are infected with the virus, they usually do not experience any noticeable symptoms. However, uninfected adolescents and young adults who come in contact with the virus may develop infectious mononucleosis.
- The Epstein-Barr virus (EBV) may cause infectious mononucleosis in adolescents and young adults. However, even after the symptoms of infectious mononucleosis have disappeared, the EBV will remain dormant in the throat and blood cells during that person's lifetime. The virus can reactivate periodically, however, usually without symptoms.
What are the symptoms of infectious mononucleosis?
Mononucleosis usually lasts for 1 to 2 months. The following are the most common symptoms of mononucleosis. However, each person may experience symptoms differently. Symptoms may include:
- Swollen lymph glands in the neck, armpits, and groin
- Constant fatigue
- Sore throat due to tonsillitis, which often makes swallowing difficult
- Enlarged spleen
- Liver involvement, such as mild liver damage that can cause temporary jaundice, a yellow discoloration of the skin and whites of the eyes due to abnormally high levels of bilirubin (bile pigmentation) in the bloodstream
Once a person has had mononucleosis, the virus remains dormant in the throat and blood cells for the rest of that person's life. Once a person has been exposed to the Epstein-Barr virus, a person is usually not at risk for developing mononucleosis again.
The symptoms of mononucleosis may resemble other medical conditions. Always consult your health care provider for a diagnosis.
How is infectious mononucleosis diagnosed?
A diagnosis of mononucleosis is usually based on reported symptoms. However, diagnosis can be confirmed with specific blood tests and other lab tests, including:
- White blood cell count, which is not diagnostic, but the presence of certain types of white blood cells (lymphocytes) may support the diagnosis
- Heterophile antibody test or monospot test, which, if positive, indicates infectious mononucleosis
How is infectious mononucleosis treated?
Specific treatment for infectious mononucleosis will be determined by your health care provider based on the following:
- The extent of the problem
- Your age, overall health, and medical history
- Your tolerance for specific medications, procedures, or therapies
- Expectations for the course of the disorder
- The opinion of the health care providers involved in your care
- Your opinion and preference
Treatment for mononucleosis may include:
- Rest for about one month (to give the body's immune system time to destroy the virus)
- Drink plenty of liquids
- Corticosteroids only when necessary to reduce swelling of the throat and tonsils
What are the complications of infectious mononucleosis?
Complications of infectious mononucleosis don’t occur often. Complications may include:
- Ruptured spleen
- Kidney inflammation
- Hemolytic anemia
- Nervous system problems, such as encephalitis, meningitis, and other conditions
- Inflammation of the heart muscle
- Heart rhythm problems
- Obstruction of the upper airways
Can infectious mononucleosis be prevented?
Avoid kissing or sharing dishes or food utensils with anyone who has the infection.
When should I call my health care provider?
If your symptoms get worse or you have new symptoms, let your health care provider know.
Key points about infectious mononucleosis
- Infectious mononucleosis is characterized by swollen lymph glands, fever, sore throat, and chronic fatigue
- Mononucleosis usually lasts for 1 to 2 months.
- Symptoms may include fever, swollen lymph glands in the neck, armpits, and groin, constant fatigue, sore throat, enlarged spleen, and jaundice, a yellow discoloration of the skin.
- Treatment includes rest and plenty of liquids.
Tips to help you get the most from a visit to your health care provider:
- Before your visit, write down questions you want answered.
- Bring someone with you to help you ask questions and remember what your provider tells you.
- At the visit, write down the names of new medicines, treatments, or tests, and any new instructions your provider gives you.
- If you have a follow-up appointment, write down the date, time, and purpose for that visit.
- Know how you can contact your provider if you have questions.
Online Medical Reviewer:
Dozier, Tennille, RN, BSN, RDMS
Online Medical Reviewer:
newMentor board-certified, academically affiliated clinician
Date Last Reviewed:
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