Mononucleosis: Everything you need to know about the 'kissing disease' that killed a Florida teenager
The disease spreads through exchange of body fluids, especially saliva, giving it the name 'kissing disease'. It is usually not fatal, and no treatment other than rest is needed in most cases
A 17-year-old Florida girl lived a tragic nightmare just days before dying of severe complications to her brain. The cause of her sickness — mononucleosis or the "kissing disease" — was not known until it was too late.
The teenager was experiencing sore throat and headache in the beginning — symptoms that are similar to the flu. However, she was not getting any better.
Even when her condition spiraled out of control, doctors could not figure out what was making the girl sick, leaving them perplexed. It was only much later that doctors found that a virus was behind all the mayhem. She passed away a few days later.
The girl, Ariana Rae Delfs, contracted mononucleosis or mono — mostly caused by the highly contagious Epstein-Barr Virus, a member of the Herpes virus family.
Though doctors ran the test earlier, they could not detect the virus in her body. The disease spreads through exchange of body fluids, especially saliva, giving it the name, "kissing disease".
Other routes of exposure include coming in contact with fluids from cough or sneeze, or by sharing food or drinks with someone who has the disease.
What is Mono?
The disease is not just restricted to EBV, other viruses could be involved as well, say experts.
But EBV is the most common cause as most human beings become infected with EBV early in life, typically in their teenage years, according to Harvard Health Publishing. Still, the virus only manages to cause illness in a small minority of people, which typically lasts a few weeks.
However, the virus remains in the body — in an inactive state. Years later, in a handful of patients, the virus can trigger several different kinds of cancer, say researchers.
This does not end here. Some people with weakened immune systems react badly to EBV. They end up showing more severe symptoms and complications from the infection, including swelling of the brain, spinal cord and eye nerve.
They also can develop an immune system disorder called Guillain-Barré syndrome, sleeping disorders and psychosis.
And Ariana, who showed a swelling in her brain, was one among that unfortunate handful of patients. The swelling damaged her brain, giving her a stroke.
Scientists still do not know how one virus can cause a range of illnesses. According to Dr. Anthony L. Komaroff, humans are genetically programmed to respond to an infection with a particular microbe in a particular way. Each of us are programmed to react and respond differently to the same microorganism.
"So the virus that likely caused your granddaughter's mono probably already lives within you, and has for most of your life. If, like your granddaughter, you had mono when you were young, that was the moment the virus entered your body. It remains within you, contained," he writes on Harvard Health Letter.
Who is likely to get the disease?
It is common among teenagers and young adults, especially college students. At least one out of four teenagers and young adults who get infected with EBV will develop infectious mononucleosis, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC). The disease, however, is mostly not fatal.
People are expected to bounce back to normalcy within weeks, say experts. However, in some cases, the road to recovery can be long, spanning a couple of months.
Symptoms similar to other viral infections
Some of the symptoms that patients experience include extreme fatigue, fever, sore throat, head and body aches, swollen lymph nodes in the neck and armpits, swollen liver or spleen or both rash, according to the CDC.
Other less common symptoms are enlarged spleen and a swollen liver. People generally show symptoms after about four to six weeks from the time of infection. The symptoms may develop slowly and may not all occur at the same time, says the CDC.
Other viral infections show similar symptoms as well, including the flu, making it harder for doctors to identify the virus. If your symptoms don't improve after one or two weeks of home treatment such as resting, getting enough fluids, and eating healthy foods, experts recommend seeing a doctor.
Is it treatable?
There is no specific treatment for the disease. According to medical experts, no treatment other than rest is needed in most cases. There are no vaccines for the infection, unlike the flu.
However, patients are typically given medications to ease the pain and relieve fever. The CDC recommends drinking plenty of fluids and getting a good amount of rest.
And to keep yourself out of harm's way, experts advise against sharing drinks, food, or personal items, like toothbrushes, with people who already have mono.
For people with enlarged spleen or liver, doctors might prescribe medications to treat them. There is no specific treatment for the disease. We do not have vaccines for the infection, unlike the flu.
Can Mono relapse?
The good news is that those affected by the disease are not likely to have the disease again. Children who contract EBV may be shielded from further infections for the rest of their lives, according to Healthline.
However, in rare cases, people can experience the same symptoms again, following reactivation of the dormant EBV. This can happen in people with a weak immune system.
Some of these people can suffer for as long as six months or more. This condition is called chronic active EBV (CAEBV) disease and experts recommend seeing a doctor.