Mononucleosis: What you should know

By: Christina Olson, DO . Margot Peterson .

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Family medicine physician Christina Olson, DO, offers some helpful information for young people and parents on an illness that can be a lot more serious than its nickname “kissing disease” implies.

What is mononucleosis?
“Mono is a disease caused by the Epstein-Barr virus that affects certain blood cells. Most cases happen sporadically and outbreaks are rare.”

Who is at risk for mononucleosis?
“Technically, anyone can get it. The most common affected population is young adults ages 15 to 25. Young children tend to get it less severely. The older you are, the more antibodies you should have, which makes you less susceptible since you have probably already been exposed to the virus.”

What are the symptoms? 
“Most commonly, patients come to our office with a fever, sore throat, swollen lymph nodes and extreme fatigue. However, these symptoms can also be attributed to other infections, such as strep throat; so, these other infections should be ruled out first.”

What can happen with the spleen?
“Mono itself isn’t a severe illness, but we worry about the complications it can bring, including enlargement of the spleen and possible splenic rupture. Not everyone will have an enlarged spleen, but some degree of enlargement might happen depending on the severity of the illness. Enlargement can be determined through a physical exam performed by a doctor in the office. The risk for a ruptured spleen is higher for those involved in contact sports. The best way to avoid rupture is to avoid those activities.”

How do people get mono and how long is it contagious? 
“It’s transmitted through saliva, which is why it’s nicknamed the ‘kissing disease.’ You can also get it through coughs, sneezes, sharing a glass or food utensils with someone who has it or has had it recently. It can be spread for months after originally experiencing symptoms; even when you feel better. Patients don’t need to be quarantined in the house. Just because one person gets it, doesn’t meant the whole household will. It’s always good to remember to wash your hands.”

If you catch mono, will you get sick right away? 
“Not necessarily. The incubation period is around four to six weeks, so it can be up to a month or so before you start feeling sick.”

How can mono be treated?
“It’s important to be diagnosed in a clinic. A blood test can confirm it. Since the illness is viral, treatment is supportive. Increase your rest, eat healthy foods and drink plenty of water. A doctor will be able to tailor the treatment to each person, such as recommending to take time off of school, sports or work. Also, due to it its viral nature, antibiotics would not be recommended unless there is a secondary infection.”

When should someone come in to see a doctor to be diagnosed with mono?
“Often times, a patient will come in thinking they have strep throat because they have a sore throat. If you have any of the symptoms for mono and not getting better, please come in to see the doctor to get tested.”

When can an athlete return to participating in sports and when can a child return to school or their activities?
“Usually, I tell patients about one month. I monitor for an enlarged spleen and treatment is tailored to each patient. We want to make sure it’s a safe amount of time, especially for contact sports. Usually, they are too tired to participate anyway.”

If you’ve had mono once, can you get it again?
“You’ll make antibodies with your first exposure, so it may depend on how robust your immune response is. There are also viruses other than Epstein-Barr that can cause a similar clinical picture.”

What’s one thing you’d like people to know?
“Listen to your body. In all aspects of disease, it’s important to take it easy when you’re not feeling well and to get checked by a doctor if you’re not getting better.”

Posted In Children's, General, Health