Healthy Living

Mono A Mono: How The Kissing Disease Knocked Me Off My Feet And Taught Me Personal Health

mononucleosis
The Epstein-Barr virus has an incubation period of 30-50 days, meaning it has a lengthy onset and even longer recovery. Photo courtesy of Shutterstock

The week I turned 23, I came down with the infamous “kissing disease,” known medically as infectious mononucleosis — or more commonly as mono. I was a late bloomer; most people get mono when they’re in high school or college — and it was, quite frankly, a shock to me. I racked my mind to figure out the last time I had made out with someone randomly in a club, and it seemed to have been years. Regardless, I was stuck with an illness that knocked me off my feet for a solid three months.

Mononucleosis is caused by the Epstein-Barr virus (EBV), and can affect anyone at any age — but it’s most prevalent in teens and young adults. Sometimes children or older people can contract the virus but are unaffected by it. EBV is a member of the herpes virus family, and is one of the most common human viruses: it affects a huge chunk of the population at some point, with 90 percent of adults living with the virus in their system, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC). There’s no vaccine to prevent EBV infection, so getting mono is almost like a rite of passage. And once you’ve got it, the virus stays in your system forever, so you’ll never get it again (though there can be mild relapses).

The First Feverish Week

It’s the fatigue that truly defines the experience of mono: that and the accompanying lack of motivation to keep going that can affect you for months afterwards. The first day the exhaustion hit me, I had biked across the Queensboro Bridge into Manhattan, gone for a swim at the gym, and then biked back — all before my shift at work. Though the workout was admittedly intense, I came home and felt more tired than normal; a heavy fatigue weighed my limbs down. Little did I know, the Epstein-Barr virus had made its way into my system possibly weeks or even months before and had been incubating for quite some time, waiting to strike. The EBV has an incubation period of 30-50 days from actually contracting it. The fatigue was just the beginning.

A few days later, the exhaustion worsened and I also became moody and depressed: I was plagued with a sudden desire to go home to my parents’ house and give up on everything. Within a day, the fever struck. I denied the illness for a while, continuing to go to work until the fever got so bad that my entire body felt like it was burning up. The fever lasted about a week, and by now I had called in sick to work and also gone to an urgent care center in Queens, where doctors did blood tests on me to figure out what was wrong.

The Diagnosis

At a certain point, while waiting for my test results, I decided I could no longer be alone in NYC without anyone to take care of me. I could barely get out of bed, let alone walk down the street to get groceries, so I went home, where my parents gently tried to get me to eat plain rice, toast, soup, and drink water, though I had no appetite. That week, I got a call from the urgent care doctor notifying me that I had mono, and there was nothing I could do but rest and drink fluids to flush the virus out of my system.

Mono is typically diagnosed by looking at your throat, skin, or pressing on your abdomen. It is also diagnosed through blood tests, such as the mononucleosis test or the complete blood count (CBC). Doctors can also test your liver enzymes, which are heightened by the virus, and can show whether your liver is inflamed. Symptoms may include a heinously sore, white-covered throat (which I was lucky enough to not develop — as the illness affects everyone differently), severe fatigue, headache, nausea, loss of appetite, an inflamed liver and a swollen spleen. So yes, I could feel the swollen organs in my abdomen during the worst of the illness, and this is why people with mono can’t return to their active lifestyles or playing sports for months (Getting hit by a basketball could burst your spleen when it’s in its vulnerable post-mono state).

Needless to say I was shocked at the diagnosis, and wondered how I possibly could have been infected with the illness stereotyped as the “making out” disease rampant at frat parties. Could it be that my daily commute on a crammed train, being sneezed on by sickly strangers, had finally gotten to me? Or that my schedule of two jobs, working seven days a week, had worn me down too much? It could have been a floating sprinkle of saliva from a coughing commuter or a passerby. The fact is, there’s no real way to trace where you got mono, but it typically happens by exchanging saliva or other bodily fluids with an infected person (hence the “kissing disease” label). And mono hit me hard — probably because I was stressed, working myself to the bone, and wasn’t taking care of myself.

Learning Patience

The second week of the illness was the worst: I couldn’t eat, I slept most of the day, and I couldn’t walk down the stairs without someone supporting me. My stomach felt swollen and nauseated from my inflamed liver. I was so mentally and physically drained that I couldn’t even gather the energy to check my phone or my e-mail; the thought of communicating with people seemed overwhelmingly tiring. The highlight of those two weeks was watching The Hobbit.

With mono in particular, it’s extremely important to give yourself proper rest, even though you may be frustrated at your significant decline in productivity. Students in high school or college often have to take weeks or months off from school, depending on how hard the illness hits them. I lay in bed for three weeks, slowly being nursed back to moderate health by my parents' healthy nourishment. I drank plenty of water and tea, ate chicken soup, and gradually moved to more solid foods like eggs, toast, and kasha with strawberries and bananas. But most importantly, disconnecting and forcing myself to relax actually helped me learn how to manage my energy, stress, and health — and learn how to be patient — in the long run.

Recovery And Post-Mono Blues

As stated before, mono and depression often go hand in hand. When you’re dragged down by a heavy, seemingly endless fatigue every day, it’s hard not to feel unproductive and down. Once I was already back at work, a month after mono’s initial onset, I was advised to refrain from going to the gym or resuming my ordinary physical activity. For three months, I was banned from alcohol (to allow my liver to recover), exercise, and pushing myself too hard at anything. Every day during those months, my heavy fatigue would roll around at 3PM and sometimes earlier, so I would go home straight to bed to relax and sleep. Mono forced me to lose my competitive edge for a short time, but it also forced me to slow down and enjoy the journey. And once my recovery became complete — when I got the liver test results back that showed my enzyme levels had returned to normal — I felt more capable in moving forward in a constructive, healthy, and balanced way.

Overall, I suggest heeding Candea Core-Starke’s quote: "When an illness knocks you on your ass, you should stay down and relax for a while before trying to get back up."

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