Epstein-Barr virus (EBV) is a gamma-herpesvirus that infects over 90% of the human population worldwide. It is usually transmitted between individuals in saliva, and establishes replicative infection within the oropharynx as well as life-long latent infection of B cells. Primary EBV infection generally occurs during early childhood and is asymptomatic. If delayed until adolescence or later, it can be associated with the clinical syndrome of infectious mononucleosis (also known as glandular fever or 'mono'), an illness characterised by fevers, pharyngitis, lymphadenopathy and malaise. EBV infection is also associated with the development of EBV-associated lymphoid or epithelial cell malignancies in a small proportion of individuals. This review focuses on primary EBV infection in individuals suffering from infectious mononucleosis. It discusses the mechanism by which EBV establishes infection within its human host and the primary immune response that it elicits. It describes the spectrum of clinical disease that can accompany primary infection and summarises studies that are leading to the development of a vaccine designed to prevent infectious mononucleosis.