Mononucleosis is a disease caused by the Epstein Barr virus, and it is most common in older teens, though young adults and children can also contract it. It is sometimes called the “kissing disease,” since the primary means of contraction is through contact with an infected person’s saliva. This does not necessarily mean one has to kiss someone else to get it, however, and it's actually more common to transmit it through sharing food or drinks with someone who has the Epstein Barr virus but is not showing any symptoms.
The most common effects of mononucleosis are extreme exhaustion, a very sore throat, swollen or painful glands, and chills or fever. In young children, these effects may be very minor. Some cases will also exhibit swelling of the spleen, which can also cause significant stomach pain. The primary symptoms of tend to last for about three to four weeks, and most patients also get strep throat.
These symptoms are caused by an increase of leukocytes, which are white blood cells. Often, when blood is taken, clinical tests reveal atypical leukocytes that usually suggest the presence of mononucleosis. Tests for Epstein Barr may also be performed, but even after someone has had an active case of this disease, he or she will show the presence of Epstein Barr immunities. Long after a case of the illness, people may still be vectors for the virus.
The fact that people are still possibly contagious after contracting mononucleosis is not as scary as it sounds. Almost everyone is exposed to Epstein Barr repeatedly throughout life, with scientists estimating an exposure rate for most people at about 80-90%, but not all who have Epstein Barr antibodies will get sick. Current research suggests that times of extreme stress or overwork may make one more susceptible to a full-blown case, and that exposure may have occurred many years prior. In most cases, children with the disease are never diagnosed unless they exhibit all the symptoms, which many never do.
There is usually very little treatment for this illness except bed rest, watchful intake of fluids, and antibiotics when strep throat in present. Anti-viral medications have shown little benefit. Severe swelling of the spleen or liver may require the use of oral steroids like prednisone, and those with swelling of the organs may need to be more closely monitored so that permanent damage to the spleen or liver does not occur.
After the initial three to four weeks of illness, most people notice immense improvement. Fatigue and occasional relapses may occur, however. If recurrences are noticed more than six months after diagnosis, and particularly when exhaustion prevails, the diagnosis may include chronic fatigue syndrome (CFS), which can last for years. CFS is relatively rare and also difficult to diagnose, since everyone who's had mononucleosis will still exhibit the Epstein Barr virus in their blood.