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Alternate Names

  • Epstein-Barr viral infection


Mononucleosis is an infection caused by a herpes virus known as the Epstein-Barr virus, or EBV.

What is going on in the body?

Many people are infected with EBV during childhood. Young children exposed to EBV generally have a mild illness if any at all.
However, if infection is postponed until the teen or young adult years, infectious mononucleosis is a more likely outcome.
EBV is also responsible for a variety of other illnesses, some of them due to reactivation of the virus later in life. This can happen when the immune system has been weakened by disease, cancer treatment, or an organ or bone marrow transplant.


What are the causes and risks of the infection?

Mononucleosis is caused by EBV. EBV is spread primarily through saliva, thus its nickname, the "kissing disease." It can also be transmitted on drinking glasses and utensils, or by coughing or sneezing.
EBC is not as contagious as measles, influenza, or the common cold.
EBV lives in the person's mouth and throat for years after initial infection. Shedding of EBV by healthy individuals, through contact with saliva in some way, accounts for most of the spread to uninfected people.


What can be done to prevent the infection?

EBV is prevalent throughout the world. In the United States, 95% of the adults between 35 and 40 years of age have acquired EBV. The best way to prevent mononucleosis is to limit sharing of drinks, lipsticks, and other sources of saliva.


How is the infection diagnosed?

Diagnosis of mononucleosis begins with a medical history and physical exam. Blood tests can detect antibodies produced by the body to fight EBV. Many people, however, have these antibodies without any symptoms.

Long Term Effects

What are the long-term effects of the infection?

When a person has had mononucleosis, EBV may recur later in life. The EBV virus has been associated with Burkitt's lymphoma, an uncommon blood cancer. It has also been associated with nasopharyngeal cancer, a cancer that occurs in the back of the throat area. However, EBV is not the only cause of these cancers. It is extremely rare for people infected with EBV to ever develop either of these cancers. Other more common complications of EBV are as follows:
  • heart infection
  • infection of the brain or spinal cord
  • lymph nodes that are so swollen they cause breathing problems
  • severe infection in people with weakened immune systems
  • a ruptured spleen
  • very low blood counts

Other Risks

What are the risks to others?

EBV is spread through contact with the saliva of the infected person.


What are the treatments for the infection?

In an otherwise healthy person without complications, the best strategy for treatment is to get plenty of rest and fluids, and allow the infection to resolve itself. Strenuous exercise or contact sports should be avoided during this time to prevent rupture of the spleen.
Oral corticosteroids, such as prednisone, are sometimes used to treat very large lymph nodes or tonsils. Antiviral agents such as acyclovir (i.e., Zovirax) may sometimes be used in complicated cases.
Although antibiotics are of no help in viral infections, such as EBV infections, ampicillin can be especially problematic if given to a person with mononucleosis as the combination can cause a prominent rash.

Side Effects

What are the side effects of the treatments?

Corticosteroids may cause bleeding, increased risk for infection, and bone thinning.

After Treatment

What happens after treatment for the infection?

Symptoms of mononucleosis can last for several weeks but usually resolve. However, EBV is sometimes fatal in people with weakened immune systems.


How is the infection monitored?

Most cases resolve by themselves. Any new or worsening symptoms should be reported to the healthcare provider.

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