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Differences Between Mono and Leukemia in Children

By Holly McGurgan ; Updated August 14, 2017

Mononucleosis and leukemia are two different diseases that share some of the same symptoms. Understanding the differences between these two diseases can help you determine which disease your child might have, although a visit to your child’s doctor is critical if she displays potential symptoms of either disease.


Mononucleosis, commonly called “mono,” occurs following an infection with the Epstein-Barr virus. People infected with the virus don’t always experience any symptoms or develop mono. The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention reports that infection with the virus during adolescence or young adulthood causes infectious mononucleosis 35 percent to 50 percent of the time. The virus spreads when an uninfected person comes in contact with mucus or saliva from an infected person. Although the disease can be spread by kissing, you can also catch it if an infected person sneezes or coughs near you or if you drink from the same glass or use the same fork as an infected person. Symptoms of mononucleosis don’t appear immediately after exposure and could take as long as four to six weeks to appear.


Leukemia is a cancer of the blood that causes an overproduction of immature white blood cells. Although white blood cells are necessary to fight infection, producing too many immature cells crowds out healthy cells and can prevent the development of new healthy cells. The Children’s Hospital of Philadelphia reports that leukemia is most commonly seen in children ages 2 to 6 years and occurs slightly more often in males than females. Children who have immediate family members who have had leukemia, have Down syndrome or have certain rare genetic syndromes are at an increased risk of developing leukemia.


Both mononucleosis and leukemia can cause fever, swollen lymph glands, sweating at night, weakness and fatigue. Other symptoms of mononucleosis include loss of appetite and sore throat. Symptoms of leukemia vary by type, but may include weight loss, chills, trouble breathing and frequent illnesses and infections. Children who have leukemia may bleed or bruise easily and can suffer from anemia, a condition caused by a decrease in healthy red blood cells. If your child has leukemia, he might complain of pain in the abdomen or bones.


Because mononucleosis is a virus, antibiotics and other medications aren’t helpful in treating symptoms. Fatigue, the primary symptom of mononucleosis, is treated by encouraging the child to rest as needed. Children who spend significant periods of the day sleeping may be at increased risk for dehydration. Increasing fluid intake when the child is awake can reduce the risk. Taking over-the-counter pain medications can help reduce fever and pain. Mononucleosis resolves on its own in one month or slightly longer, while leukemia can cause serious illness or death if medical treatment is not started. Doctors use radiation or strong chemotherapy medications to destroy abnormal blood cells caused by leukemia. Targeted or biological therapy may also be helpful in treating leukemia. During targeted therapy, your child receives drugs that attack certain areas of the cells, while biological therapy helps the body’s immune system improve its response to the abnormal cancer cells. If these therapies don’t cause a reduction of abnormal cells, the doctor might recommend a stem cell transplant. During a stem cell transplant, your child’s bone marrow, the area at the center of the bones that produces blood cells, is destroyed in order to accept healthy donor stem cells. If the transplant succeeds, the donor cells will form new bone marrow and begin producing healthy blood cells.

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