Mumps is a contagious disease that is caused by a virus, with symptoms similar to the flu, such as fever, headache, muscle aches, tiredness and loss of appetite, along with the telltale swelling of the salivary glands resulting in puffy cheeks and jaw pain or tenderness (picture chipmunk cheeks). If you haven’t heard much about mumps lately, there is a good reason for that. Until recently, at least for the last four to five decades, it was relatively uncommon.
After a number of years of sharply declining incidence thanks to the development of an effective vaccine, mumps once a common childhood disease in the U.S., is on the uptick again. In fact, as of mid-December 2016, around 4,000 cases had been reported – triple the number from 2015, making it the worst outbreak in more than ten years, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC). Especially hard hit are college campuses around the country where students live, learn and play in close proximity to one another. Experts worry that after students have returned home for the holidays there could be even more cases reported among family members and throughout the communities they visited.
The mumps virus actually can be well controlled by the MMR (measles, mumps and rubella) vaccine. The CDC recommends that children get two doses of MMR vaccine, starting with the first dose at 12 to 15 months of age, and the second dose at ages 4 through 6. When a person gets two doses, the vaccine is about 88% effective; with just one dose it is still about 78% effective. Experts believe recent mumps outbreaks may have started among those who are under-vaccinated (who did not receive both doses of the vaccine as children) or who are unvaccinated. These outbreaks are likely sustained by individuals with reduced immunity to the disease because of the length of time that has elapsed since their last dose – i.e. college kids who have not been vaccinated for some 12 to 16 years.
Since the U.S. vaccination program for measles, mumps and rubella was started in 1967, until recently, there had been a 99% decrease in mumps cases in the U.S.
Mumps is spread through saliva or mucus from the mouth, nose, or throat. An infected person can spread the virus by:
A person may be contagious even before the salivary glands begin to swell and up to five days after the swelling begins. Symptoms typically appear 16-18 days after exposure to someone with the virus.
(It should be noted that some people with the virus have very mild symptoms and some have no symptoms at all.)
The best way to avoid getting mumps is having the MMR vaccine. Check your immunization record (or those of your family members) to be sure all recommended immunizations are up to date. Talk to your doctor about whether vaccinations for preteens, teens and adults should be updated. Let your doctor know right away if you think you or someone in your family may have mumps. It is highly contagious, so anyone with mumps should be isolated from others as much as possible until they are no longer contagious (according to the CDC at least 5 days after the onset of swelling of the salivary glands).
Because mumps is a virus, it doesn’t respond to antibiotics or other medications. However, you can treat the symptoms to make yourself more comfortable while you’re sick.
You can usually return to work or school about one week after a doctor diagnoses your mumps, if you feel up to it. By this point, you’re no longer contagious. Mumps usually runs its course in a couple of weeks. Ten days into your illness, you should be feeling better. In children, mumps is usually a mild disease. Adults may have a more serious case and more complications.
Mumps can be serious, but most people with mumps recover completely in a few weeks.
Complications from mumps are rare, but they can be serious if left untreated. Mumps mostly affects the parotid glands. However, it can also cause inflammation in other areas of the body, including the brain and reproductive organs. For more about serious complications visit www.cdc.gov/mumps.
Know the symptoms and see a doctor if you think you have mumps. Take it easy and follow your doctor’s instructions. If your symptoms have not improved or have worsened after a week, notify your doctor. Avoid contact with others until you are no longer contagious.
Your best chance to avoid mumps is to get vaccinated. It’s too late after you have been exposed to the disease.