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Signs and Symptoms of Mumps

Mumps is a viral infection that spreads by direct contact with respiratory droplets (such as are formed with a sneeze or cough). It can also bespread by contact with saliva or contaminated objects. Once infected, victims go through an incubation period ranging from 2-3 weeks before the first symptoms develop. Unfortunately, as with many viral infections, children can be contagious for up to a week before their first symptoms, and nine days after their last. This accounts for the rapid spread of infection – many people simply don’t know that they are carrying the virus until it’s too late.

Isn’t mumps a thing of the past?

Because of the very effective vaccine against mumps, contained in the measles, mumps, and rubella shot (MMR), mumps cases have become rare in the United States. Occasional outbreaks of mumps still occur – one has been in progress in the United Kingdom since 2004, with more than 70,000 cases reported. An outbreak in the Midwestern US began in December 2005, and spread to other states in mid-April of 2006.

Symptoms of mumps begin with muscle pains, loss of appetite, fatigue,headache and fever (typical of any viral infection). Within a few days there is rapid swelling and tenderness of the salivary glands. The glands most commonly affected are those in the cheeks (the parotid glands), which gives the child the typical “chipmunk” appearance. Swelling can be on either or both sides. This swelling doesn’t always occur in mumps, however – as many as 20% of children have no symptoms at all, and nearly 50% have mostly respiratory symptoms without necessarily any swelling.

Most children only get mumps one time. Many people used to think that if you only got mumps on one side, you could get it again on the other side. This is not true. Which side becomes swollen seems to be a matter of luck, and the body’s immune system almost always prevents a second case of mumps, even when there’s been no swelling at all.

Complications of mumps can be serious. They include deafness (more common in children than adults), and inflammation of the testes, ovaries, or breasts. Rarely, children with mumps who have inflammation of the testes may become sterile. Mumps can also cause pancreatitis, inflammation of the brain and spinal cord (encephalitis or meningitis), and miscarriage. With the exception of deafness, these complications are more common in adults than in children.

Preventing Mumps

Normal vaccine recommendations are that children receive one dose of the measles, mumps, and rubella vaccine (MMR) at age 12 months, with a second dose in the preschool years. Unfortunately, the mumps vaccine is not effective following exposure to the virus, and it may not be effective for up to 4 weeks after the vaccination. This means that during an outbreak children are still at risk for mumps up to a month after their MMR. During a mumps outbreak, doctors make special efforts to identify children who need the mumps vaccine or a second dose.

Bottom Line for Parents

During an outbreak of mumps, a little extra watchfulness makes sense, but there’s no reason to be unduly frightened. If your child has had 2 doses of MMR, with the last dose more than a month ago, s/he will almost certainly be fine. If your child hasn’t had 2 doses of MMR, or if it’s been less than a month since the last dose, just pay a little extra attention to symptoms of cough, headache, tiredness, fever, and poor appetite. Things you would normally think are “just a cold” might be worth a quick call to your doctor’s office. Doctors all get bulletins from CDC advising them of an outbreak’s progress; if further testing or observation are called for, your doctor will know. You can also visit the CDC website yourself for further updates.