Epstein-Barr is the virus that causes mononucleosis. You might know this disease better by its nickname, "mono." It's also called the "kissing disease" because of one way you can spread it to someone else.
Even though Epstein-Barr virus (EBV) isn't a household name, you've probably been infected without knowing it. Lots of people carry the virus but don't get sick.
Once you're infected with EBV, symptoms can take 4 to 6 weeks to show up. When they do, they're often mild, especially in young children. Kids' symptoms may be more like those of a cold or flu. Teens often have more obvious symptoms of mono.
If you do get symptoms, most likely you'll have:
Although you should start feeling better in 2 to 4 weeks, the fatigue can stick around much longer. You may still feel tired a couple of months later.
How It Spreads
The virus is found in saliva, so you can catch mono from kissing someone who’s infected. You can also get it from drinking from the same glass or using an infected person's toothbrush. It's also found in blood and semen, so it's possible to get mono from sex, a blood transfusion, or an organ transplant.
You don't have to be sick to pass the virus to someone else. EBV stays in your body long after you get over mono. The virus can become active again months or years later, making you contagious once more.
See your doctor for an exam to learn for sure what's making you sick. They might find signs that you have mono, such as an enlarged spleen, an organ in your belly that filters blood. Your doctor will also check to see if you have a swollen liver and white patches on your tonsils.
You may also need to get some blood tests. One test looks for antibodies, substances your immune system makes in response to the EBV virus. Another test looks for a type of white blood cell your body uses to fight off the EBV infection.
Like other viruses, Epstein-Barr can't be treated with antibiotics. Mono should clear up on its own without treatment in a few weeks.
What You Can Do at Home
Although no medicine can cure an EBV infection, you can take these steps at home to ease your symptoms:
- Get plenty of rest.
- Drink a lot of water and other liquids to stay hydrated.
- Suck on lozenges or ice pops, or gargle with warm salt water, to make your sore throat feel better.
- Take painkillers like acetaminophen or ibuprofen to bring down fever and relieve body aches. (Don't give aspirin to children under 19 years of age because of the risk of a rare but serious condition called Reye’s syndrome.)
Ease back into work or school, taking things slowly until you feel better. For a month or so, avoid sports, heavy lifting, or other vigorous activities in which you could injure your spleen.
No vaccine can protect you against the EBV virus. The best way to avoid catching it is to stay away from anyone who has mono.
Don't share any items, including glasses, silverware, and toothbrushes, with someone who is infected. Also avoid kissing or having sex with an infected person.
When to See Your Doctor
There are some rare complications of mono, so see your doctor if you or your child has any of these symptoms:
- Sudden, sharp pain on the left side of the belly, which could mean a problem with your spleen
- Very little urine, a sign of dehydration
- Trouble breathing or swallowing -- call 911 immediately
Also call if your symptoms don't go away after 4 to 6 weeks. You could have another type of infection besides mononucleosis.
Other Diseases Caused by EBV
EBV is best known for causing mononucleosis, but less often it can lead to other diseases, including:
- Ear infections and diarrhea in children
- Guillain-Barre syndrome
- Certain cancers, including Burkitt's lymphoma and cancers of the nose and throat
Studies also show a link between EBV and multiple sclerosis (MS), but more research is needed to determine if the virus can lead to MS.