Exclusive Content

MS and the “Kissing Disease” Mononucleosis 

By Matt Cavallo

As a person living with multiple sclerosis, I am always researching the latest findings and studies related to MS. By doing so, I can stay on top of all MS related news and report my findings. This month I was shocked to learn that MS may be triggered by the “kissing disease”: mononucleosis.

The Journal of American Medical Association, published a population–based cohort study of 2,492,980 individuals in Sweden that revealed that “in childhood and particularly adolescence, mononucleosis is a risk factor for a subsequent MS diagnosis, independent of shared familial factors, making it less likely that greater susceptibility to infection is the explanation.” Meaning that regardless of whether a person has shared familial factors, such as family history of MS, having mononucleosis as a child increases your risk of being diagnosed with MS later in life as an adult. 

Mononucleosis, or mono, is caused by the Epstein-Barr virus. The Epstein-Barr virus is an infectious disease that can be spread from saliva, which is why mono was dubbed the “kissing disease” for adolescence. In addition to kissing, you can get mono by sharing a drink, spoon, or fork with an individual who is carrying the virus. While it is not as contagious as the common cold, the Epstein-Barr virus is considered contagious and can live in your saliva for months after the infection.

Mono may go undiagnosed, especially in small children. Symptoms such as sore throat, fatigue, fever, swollen tonsils, rash, or headaches make the virus seem like a common cold or flu. Undiagnosed children may accidentally spread mono by going to school and sharing a drink or snack. A child would not have the capacity to understand that sharing a sip of soda with an infected classmate could lead to a future life of MS years later in adulthood. 

I couldn’t remember having mono as a teenager, so I asked my mom if I had mono when I was a child. There was a long pause and then she asked why I wanted to know. I told her that I had read this study in JAMA about having mono early in life can increase the risk of an MS diagnosis. She paused again and then said that when I was about 4 or 5 years old I was diagnosed with mononucleosis. I was sick for a month or two during the summer and that some of the extended family members didn’t want me at gatherings because they were afraid that I would get them sick.

I am too young to remember how I got it or even to remember having mono, but when I was doing this research, I knew I had to ask my mom because there was something in my subconscious that said I have had mono before. Does this mean that I developed MS because I had mono as a kid? There is no way to tell. My aunt Loretta had MS, so the fact that the increased risk of MS from mono was there regardless of familial relations made me wonder if having mono could have contributed to my diagnosis at 28 years old.

Some of these questions we may never be able to answer. However, it is oddly comforting to understand that I had risk factors, such as mono, that I didn’t know about. Now, my MS feels less random and unexplainable, which somehow makes me feel a little better. Although the story would have been a little more juicy if I had actually gotten the “kissing disease” while kissing.