Teen Talk: What Is Kissing Disease?

kissing diseaseIf you’re a total dork like me, you might have some plush microbes hanging out on your desk or in your bedroom. The one that represents Epstein-Barr virus is especially adorable (look to your right and try not to coo in delight!). I just want to grab it, cuddle up to it, and fall asleep in its pillowy purple-pink embrace.

In reality, Epstein-Barr virus, or EBV for short, is not the most warm-and-fuzzy microbe of the bunch. I’d way rather have a cold. Why? Because EBV causes mono, which is more whimsically known as the kissing disease. And, despite that cute moniker, kissing disease can be most unpleasant.

Take it from one mono survivor: “Mono stinks!”

First, an explanation of why mono is also called the kissing disease. Merely being in the presence of someone with mono won’t put you at risk, even if you’re both in the same room — you need to be actively swapping spit with them to be exposed to the virus. Kissing is probably the most famous way for two people to exchange saliva, but sharing cups, eating utensils, or toothbrushes can do it, too. After exposure to the virus, symptoms could show up in 4 to 6 weeks.

Second, an explanation of why mono can be so terrible. While not all teenagers and young adults who are infected with EBV will develop symptoms, those who do probably won’t enjoy the experience. Symptoms include extreme fatigue, head and body aches, sore throat, and fever. It’s bad enough to have those symptoms for a few days, but mono might seem to go on and on with no end in sight. Most people are better in 2 to 4 weeks, but even then it could take another few weeks to get back to 100 percent. And some unlucky people can experience these symptoms for six months or even longer! In addition to these nasty symptoms, serious complications are possible.

A friend of mine got mono when she was in college. I asked her to reminisce about the experience:

I was too exhausted to stand up for the duration of a shower, and simple tasks like making toast or washing a dish (a single dish) proved ridiculously challenging. Mono stinks!

Luckily, the majority of us are infected with EBV before we reach our teen years — in fact, in countries like the United States and the UK, around half of us get it before our 5th birthday. Why does getting this virus as a little kid make you so lucky? Because, at that age, EBV is usually harmless. For some weird reason, that virus can wreak havoc on us once we’re older, so if we’re not exposed to it until adolescence or adulthood, we have a chance of developing mono — a 25 to 50 percent chance depending on which stats are correct. So, if you’re unfortunate enough to be stricken with mono, you’ll have to crawl into bed and prepare to binge watch those shows you’ve been meaning to get into (OK, so that part doesn’t sound too bad).

While kissing is the most well-known mode of transmission, and while it can also be transmitted by doing less fun things like sharing spoons and forks, EBV might also be transmitted sexually. Of course, most sexual partners are probably also kissing each other, so teasing both modes of transmission apart might be difficult — but both kissing and having sex might increase the amount of virus a person is exposed to.

In case you’re reading this post and freaking out, don’t worry: Only 1 out of 2,000 people gets mono. Most of these people are between the ages of 15 and 24.

If you weren’t already exposed to EBV when you were a kid, you can avoid coming down with mono by steering clear of other people’s saliva — but most of us are doing at least some kissing after we emerge from childhood and into adolescence. What to do? It is possible to get a lab test to see if you were exposed to the virus previously, but, thanks to the intricacies of health insurance, a doctor might not be able to order a test just to satisfy your curiosity. So probably the most realistic way to prevent getting mono would be to avoid sharing drinking containers and spoons with people, but not to deprive yourself of the chance to kiss your special sweetie.

EBV is a member of the herpesvirus family, along with the viruses that cause herpes and chickenpox. (Interestingly, chickenpox is also less severe in small children, which is why in the pre-chickenpox-vaccine days, a lot of parents would purposely get their wee ones infected with the virus by shoving them into a room with an infected kid. Don’t ask me how I know that.) Like all herpesviruses, once we are infected with it, the virus remains dormant in our bodies for the rest of our lives. This means that asymptomatic individuals can act as “reservoirs” for the virus and unknowingly infect others. Luckily, an early childhood infection usually means you’re not at risk for developing mono — you have to be infected when you’re at least an adolescent before the symptoms take a turn for the nasty.

If you have mono, you should listen to whatever advice a health care provider gives you. Some tips to help you take care of yourself include:

  • getting plenty of rest!
  • keeping hydrated with water and juice
  • relieving aches and pains with over-the-counter pain medicines like acetaminophen (Tylenol) or ibuprofen (Advil)
  • gargling with salt water for a sore throat (1/2 teaspoon of salt in 8 ounces of warm water)
  • avoiding physical exertion and sports even after you start feeling better (mono can cause your spleen to enlarge, making it prone to injury)
  • going to an emergency department if you experience severe abdominal pain, which could signal a medical emergency

More information about mono can be found at the Center for Disease Control and Prevention’s website.

Check out other installments of our Teen Talk series here!