Pediatric HealthSource: Mononucleosis

Dr. Octavio Ramilo
Octavio Ramilo, M.D.

Q: My daughter came home and told me one of her friends is home with the “kissing disease.” What is that, and how do I prevent it in my kids?

A: During the winter season, parents know that from the common cold to the flu to strep throat, a lot goes around each year. One illness that may not always be top of mind is mononucleosis.

Also called “mono,” this contagious illness is caused by the Epstein-Barr virus. It's sometimes called the “kissing disease” because adolescents can spread it through kissing. Young children can catch mononucleosis by coming into contact with the saliva of infected playmates or family members. Common symptoms include fever, sore throat, sore muscles, extreme tiredness, enlarged lymph nodes in the neck, armpits and throat, and an enlarged spleen.

Children usually have the virus for one to two weeks before they have symptoms. Once symptoms appear, mono usually goes away on its own in a few weeks. Because mono is a virus, antibiotics will not help—the illness just needs to run its course. Supportive care, such as getting plenty of rest and liquids, is the best treatment. Parents can give acetaminophen or ibuprofen for muscle aches and fever.

On rare occasions, a pediatrician may prescribe a steroid medicine if tonsils or lymph nodes in the neck are so enlarged that they interfere with normal breathing. If a child experiences sudden, sharp pain in the upper left abdomen, has any trouble breathing or swallowing, or is dehydrated, parents should call their pediatrician right away.

Always consult your child's pediatrician concerning your child's health.

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Octavio Ramilo, M.D., is chief of Infectious Diseases at Nationwide Children's Hospital.

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Managing Mono

Mononucleosis is sometimes called the “kissing disease” because it can be spread through saliva. To prevent mono from spreading:

  • Wash those hands: Always practice thorough handwashing at home and everywhere else, after eating, drinking and using the bathroom.
  • Take it easy: Children with mono should not take part in contact sports or vigorous activity until the doctor says it is OK. Even playful wrestling at home could harm the enlarged spleen.
  • Keep distance in mind: The best way to prevent mono is to avoid contact (sneezing, coughing and kissing) with people who are infected.