Mono and Teenagers: What Every Parent Should Know

I made it through adolescence without catching the dreaded “kissing disease,” also known as mono, but unfortunately my 7th grade daughter has not been so lucky. As of this week, she has already missed nearly four weeks of school thanks to this beast of a virus.

She is far more interested in animals and volunteering at the Humane Society than in kissing, and I think she would actually be mortified if anyone even made such a suggestion.

Mono, formally known as infectious mononucleosis, is spread primarily through saliva, which makes smooching the perfect conduit to spread the virus, but most people actually contract the disease by sharing drinks, food and utensils or being the recipient of infected sneeze or cough droplets.

My daughter, Sophia, first complained of a sore throat on a Monday evening. By the following day, she was also suffering from an ornery headache plus fatigue, dizziness, swollen lymph glands and nausea. I first thought it was just a simple virus that would resolve itself in a few days. By Saturday, she was feeling better and we spent the day visiting a friend’s farm. But by evening, she said she was feeling ill again.

In my daughter’s case, strep throat had already been ruled out, so we went back and requested a mono test after learning a classmate had recently been diagnosed with the virus. To our surprise, this test came back negative too.

Another week went by with her languishing in bed. She was losing weight, her skin was pale and she lacked her usual spark and spunk. After doing a little research on mono, I discovered that there are two tests for mono. The simple test is known as the mononucleosis spot test. This test looks for antibodies (proteins) in the blood that the body makes to fight the mono viruses. Since antibodies take a while to develop, tests taken too early can come back negative. Two to three weeks after the initial infection, this test is still only about 85 percent accurate.

The more complete test is a full mono panel. Perplexed by Sophia’s stubborn and still un-named illness, we asked for the more comprehensive mono test. This one came back as positive for Epstein-Barr virus, which causes mono. We were relieved to finally have a diagnosis, but as I researched the virus that was ailing my daughter, I realized our fight against this tenacious virus had just begun.

The Epstein-Barr virus (EBV) is the primary culprit behind mono, but cytomegalovirus (CMV) causes symptoms nearly identical to EBV, so if you think you have mono but test negative multiple times, consider testing for CMV as well. Both viruses are far more common than I initially thought.

Below is some information I’ve unearthed from WebMD, the CDCMedicineNet, other experts and parents who have experienced the viruses.

What are the Warning Signs of Mono and How Long Does it Last?

  • The incubation period for mono is rather long: 30 to 50 days from exposure to symptom manifestation.
  • Many people contract the EBV virus (the main culprit behind mono) without ever having symptoms.
  • Some individuals with mono become hyper-sensitive to light.
  • About 50 percent of mono sufferers develop an enlarged spleen, usually two to three weeks after they first become ill. When the spleen is enlarged it is vulnerable to rupture which is why mono patients should avoid contact sports and heavy lifting for at least two months after recovering. A ruptured spleen is life-threatening. If you have mono and experience a severe sharp pain in the upper left side of your abdomen, go to an emergency room or call 911 immediately.
  • If you first contract EBV when you are a teen or older, you are more likely to develop mono symptoms.
  • About 50 percent of children are exposed to EBV before age 5, but at that age, the virus is usually asymptomatic.

How Common is Mono? What Age Groups are Most at Risk?

  • Mono primarily strikes people 10 to 35 years old, with 15- to 17-year-olds being the most vulnerable. In the general population, about 50 people out of 100,000 contract mono, but within the teen to twenty-something demographic the rate is much higher: 2 in 1000.
  • By age 35-40, about 90 percent of Americans have EBV antibodies, which indicates exposure at some point in their lives.
  • CMV is also a common virus that can lead to mono with about 85 percent of the U.S. population exposed to it by the time they reach adulthood.
  • CMV is often asymptomatic, but like EBV manifests as mono most often within the teenage and twenty-something population.

How Long is the Virus Contagious?

Mono is a tricky virus and no one really knows how long EBV is contagious. Doctors believe mono is contagious from the initial infection point up to 18 months after getting mono! But once EBV enters the body, it entrenches and doesn’t leave, therefore the virus can pop up in a person’s saliva throughout their lives post-infection. However, since EBV is so prevalent in human communities, and nearly everyone will be exposed at some point in their lives, it does little good to be paranoid about contracting it. You will either get it and have mild to no symptoms or you will get walloped. Apparently, the younger you are when you get it, the milder the symptoms.

What are Some Natural Remedies?

Eating healing foods and staying hydrated are so important to the process of recovery. Kale, blueberries, papaya, celery and garlic are especially healing for mono sufferers according to Anthony Williams, author of Medical Medium. Another friend who suffered recently from mono also suggested this powerful concoction:

“I used a teaspoon of apple cider vinegar (organic with mother in it like Braggs) in a large mug of warm water with honey after food to help in recovery. Plus lots of vitamin D and homemade yogurt. It seemed to do wonders.”

Another friend, Christine Creel, who loves working with essential oils, recommends Do Terra’s special formula, DigestZen, for nausea and On Guard and Lemon for sore throats. She also highly recommends On Guard throat Lozenges. To fight the virus itself, she suggests diffusing the anti-viral combo of Oregano, On Guard, Frankincense, Melaleuca. Finally, she loves Melissa as “this essential oil kicks booty on herpes and other viruses in the herpes family.”Mono and teens

How Can I Support My Child Who Has Mono?

As we are learning from Sophia’s illness, mono can take you out of commission for weeks and even months, which is undoubtedly frustrating for both the sick person and often for their caretakers, too. To add to the frustration, one day she seems to feel better and can enjoy a visitor or a fun activity only to crawl back in bed again for a number of days.

As a caregiver and parent, it is easy to perceive and criticize all this lounging around as laziness or avoidance of responsibilities. But if you do, you are only doing the virus a favor.

Trust your mono-inflicted teen’s reporting on their limited capacity. If they need to sleep, let them sleep. If they need to lounge, let them lounge. Pushing them to recover faster will backfire. Make sure siblings also understand this as there is sure to be some jealously, judgment or resentment. The only cure for mono is rest, sleep, eating healthy, hydration, a few minutes of sunshine and fresh air plus an environment with little stress. Some people can kick the virus in a few weeks while others take months.

One friend who suffered a bout of mono concurrently with her daughter shared this story:

We had mono two years ago when my daughter was in 7th grader. She brought it home and slept a lot but her symptoms did not last as long as mine did. The spleen issue made lying in bed uncomfortable. I wish I could tell you it wasn’t that bad, but the truth is that it was horrible. Two weeks after my mono ended I came down with whooping cough. Since my immune system had taken such a hit, whooping cough really took its toll. I was sick for 6 months and then it took me another 6 months to just get my energy back.

Is it Normal for Mono-Afflicted Teenagers to Feel Depressed?

Mono-afflicted teenagers also have special social needs and anxieties. Many adults I spoke with who had mono as teens painfully recalled the social isolation as the hardest part of the illness. Today, we have numerous online social tools to keep connected, but in some ways that may exacerbate the depression of being socially isolated as a teen will see everything he or she is missing. Another friend described the social stigma that can accompany mono since it is also known as the “kissing disease:”

I got it in 7th grade and I had to sit at my own lunch table and it was so sad. My schoolmates also teased me because they said I had run around kissing boys and that, along with having to sit alone at lunch, was really socially isolating…

Make sure you check-in with your teenager about these social/emotional issues in addition to managing the physical symptoms. The University of Rochester Medical Center has a great blog addressing the psychological complications associated with chronic illness in teens:

Adolescence, alone, is a stressful developmental process even for physically healthy teens. Chronic illness that happens during adolescence makes adolescent development even more difficult. They also interfere with the process of gaining independence, and disrupt changing relationships with parents and friends. Also, adolescent developmental issues complicate a teen’s transition toward taking responsibility for managing his or her illness and learning to do what is needed in terms of recommended treatment.

Getting over the “mono hump” is undoubtedly challenging for all involved, but especially for those going through adolescence. But, more than anything, a teenager with mono just needs rest along with a hearty dose of the best medicine parent’s can give: love, support and patience.

Have you or someone in your family suffered one or more bouts of mono? Please share your stories below!


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