No longer a teenager? You can still get mono

Sick woman, maybe with mono

lagrafika / Pixabay

A while back, a friend of mine was diagnosed with mononucleosis (mono). When I hear that someone has mono, I think teenager. My friend may be so in spirit, but in reality, she is a grandmother.

What is mono?

According to the National Institutes of Health, mononucleosis is a viral infection that causes fever, sore throat and swollen lymph glands, especially in the neck. It is often spread by saliva and close contact. Known as “the kissing disease,” it occurs most often in people age 15 to 17. However, the infection may develop at any age.

Mono is usually caused by the Epstein-Barr virus (EBV), which is an extremely common virus. Most people will become infected with EBV sometime during their lives, but won’t ever have any symptoms. Up to 90 percent of American adults will have developed antibodies to the virus by the time they are 40.

When older people get mono, they usually have slightly different symptoms than if they were much younger, which can be confusing for the health care provider trying to make a diagnosis.

Mono symptoms in an older person

  • NO swollen lymph nodes
  • NO sore throat
  • NO enlarged spleen
  • NO atypical white blood cells
  • Jaundice
  • Enlarged liver

Often, infectious mononucleosis in older people is confused with lymphoma, leukemia or gall bladder obstruction, or is classified as “fever of unknown origin. Fortunately, the astute nurse practitioner my friend saw decided to get a mono test, just in case.

“For a week before my diagnosis,” she told me, “I felt SOOO tired and achy and flu-ish. I told the nurse practitioner something’s off; I just don’t feel right. And God bless her, she ordered up some blood work and included mono.”

Some people call mono the kissing disease, so of course, I had to ask her who she’d been kissing lately. Her quick response: “I never keep a list of who I kiss. Maybe I should!”

How mono is spread, no matter what your age

  • The virus that causes mono lives in the nose and throat. It can be spread when people come in direct contact with infected saliva, tears, or mucus.
  • It is usually spread when saliva from an infected person gets into another person’s mouth. It can happen if you share a drinking glass or eating utensils with someone who is infected, or it can happen with a kiss, although a brief kiss on the lips is not likely to spread the virus.

When you are contagious

  • The virus can be passed to others for several weeks or months during and after an infection. The virus can also become active and spread to others from time to time throughout your life.
  • There is a small risk of spreading EBV through blood products. If you know you have mono, you should not donate blood.
  • It takes 4 to 6 weeks for symptoms to develop after you have been infected with the virus. This is called the incubation period.

A little advice from my friend: “If you’ve got unusual aches and pains don’t just “chalk it up to old age,” she advises. “If you think you don’t feel well, you probably don’t —find out what’s wrong!”

And if you get it, the usual treatment is rest, rest, rest. My friend did as she was told and thankfully, healed quickly.