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What is glandular fever?

Teenage girl sitting on a sofa with head on her knees because she has glandular fever
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Glandular fever is a common infection caused by a virus. You might have also heard glandular fever being called ‘mono’ which is short for infectious mononucleosis.

Glandular fever can make you feel unwell and the symptoms can last for several weeks.

Fortunately for most people, glandular fever does not lead to any complications or lasting problems. Once you have had glandular fever, your immune system will recognise the virus and prevent you from getting it again.

Feeling unwell and wondering if it’s glandular fever? We’ll answer some questions you might have:

  • What causes glandular fever?
  • Who is most at risk of glandular fever?
  • What symptoms does glandular fever cause?
  • Are there any complications of glandular fever?
  • Glandular fever treatment
  • How can glandular fever be avoided?

What causes glandular fever?

Glandular fever is the name for the symptoms of the condition, caused by the Epstein-Barr virus. This virus is found all over the world, and most people are infected with it at some point in their lives, although not all these infections lead to glandular fever.

Once you are infected, there is a four to seven-week incubation period before you might start seeing symptoms.

Who is most at risk of glandular fever?

Glandular fever can affect people of all ages but is most common in teenagers and young adults. Most people who catch the virus get it when they are children. Glandular fever often shows no or few symptoms in children.

The Epstein-Barr virus is more likely to cause glandular fever in adults. Only around 10% of infections in children lead to glandular fever symptoms, compared to 20-70% of infections in teenagers and young adults.

The symptoms of glandular fever

Glandular fever has several symptoms that can make you feel unwell. These include:

  • A high temperature
  • Feeling hot or shivery
  • A severe sore throat
  • Swollen glands on either side of your neck
  • Tonsillitis that doesn’t get better quickly
  • Extreme tiredness

For most people, these symptoms last for 2-3 weeks. However, often the tiredness can last for many months.

Possible complications of glandular fever

Glandular fever makes most people feel unwell, but it can cause other problems in a small minority of people with the virus:

  • Swollen spleen (avoid heavy lifting or contact sports while recovering)
  • Liver inflammation, which can cause yellowing of the skin or eyes (jaundice)
  • Low blood cells (platelets) count
  • Conditions that can affect the nervous system, such as Guillain-Barré syndrome or Bell’s palsy

Glandular fever may lead to more problems in people with weakened immune systems.

Treatment for glandular fever

There isn’t a cure for glandular fever, and treatment is geared towards helping you feel better while your body fights the infection.

Ways to manage your symptoms include:

Antibiotics can’t treat glandular fever. They are for infections caused by bacteria and don’t help treat viruses. You might want to avoid alcohol while you’re unwell with glandular fever because it can weaken your liver while you recover.

A small minority of people can become more unwell with glandular fever. Call 999 if you have:

  • Difficulty breathing
  • Trouble swallowing
  • Intense pain in your stomach

How to prevent glandular fever

The virus that causes glandular fever can be spread by saliva, which is why it is sometimes known as the ‘kissing disease’.

There are several things you can do to avoid spreading glandular fever:

  • Don’t share items that have touched someone else’s mouth (cups, bottles or cutlery)
  • Wash your hands regularly
  • Wash bedding and clothes if they have been exposed to someone with the virus
  • Don’t kiss anyone if you think they have glandular fever
  • Don’t kiss anyone if you think you have glandular fever

Glandular fever can be spread easily, although it’s less contagious than the common cold. Fortunately, most people with glandular fever develop immunity afterwards, which means you’re unlikely to get it more than once.

A final note on glandular fever

Glandular fever is a common condition caused by an infection from the Epstein-Barr virus. It doesn’t always cause symptoms, and usually affects teenagers and young adults. While the fever can make you feel unwell with symptoms like tiredness and a sore throat for several weeks, it’s unlikely to lead to complications.

There is no specific medicine for glandular fever, but there are some simple things you can do to make yourself feel better. Be sure to get plenty of rest and fluids, and take painkillers if you can.

For more health hints and tips, explore our blog for advice on pain relief, treating colds and flu and COVID-19.