COLUMBIA, S.C. — Mumps is a contagious viral infection that spreads through saliva or mucus from the mouth, nose, or throat.

It primarily affects and cause swelling in the saliva-producing (salivary) glands that are located near your ears. Mumps can cause swelling in one or both of these glands. This is what causes the chipmunk puffy cheeks and a tender, swollen jaw.

What are the chances of contracting mumps?

Even though the vaccine has drastically reduced mumps cases, outbreaks still occur, and the number of cases has crept up in recent years. According to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, from January 1 to September 13, 2019, 47 states and the District of Columbia in the U.S. reported mumps infections in 2,363 people to the CDC.

As in the most recent case at the College of Charleston, outbreaks have most commonly occurred among groups of people who have prolonged, close contact, such as sharing water bottles or cups, kissing, practicing sports together or living in close quarters such as schools or college campuses with a person who has mumps.

What are the symptoms of mumps?

Some people who get mumps have very mild symptoms (like a cold), or no symptoms at all and may not know they have the disease.  When signs and symptoms do develop, they usually appear about two to three weeks after exposure to the virus. The virus typically starts with a few days of fever, headache, muscle aches, weakness, tiredness, and loss of appetite.

If you suspect mumps, notify your doctor's office before your appointment so arrangements can be made to avoid spreading the virus to others in the waiting room.

In the meantime, The Mayo Clinic recommends resting as much as possible. Try to ease symptoms with cold compresses and over the counter pain relievers such as ibuprofen (Advil, Motrin IB, others) and acetaminophen (Tylenol). Since Mumps has become uncommon, doctors say it's possible that another condition is causing your signs and symptoms. Swollen salivary glands and a fever could indicate a blocked salivary gland or a different viral infection.

Most people with mumps recover completely within two weeks.

What are the complications of mumps?

Complications of mumps are rare, but some are potentially serious. Most mumps complications involve inflammation and swelling in some part of the body, such as:

  • inflammation of the testicles (orchitis) in males who have reached puberty; this may lead to a decrease in testicular size (testicular atrophy);
  • inflammation of the ovaries (oophoritis) and/or breast tissue (mastitis);
  • inflammation in the pancreas (pancreatitis);
  • inflammation of the brain (encephalitis); or
  • inflammation of the tissue covering the brain and spinal cord (meningitis)
  • deafness

Neither inflammation of the testicles nor inflammation of the ovaries caused by mumps has been shown to lead to infertility. Meningitis can occur if the mumps virus spreads through your bloodstream to infect the membranes and fluid around the brain and spinal cord. Other complications of mumps include hearing loss, heart problems and miscarriage.

How can mumps be prevented?

The best way to prevent mumps and its complications is to be vaccinated against the disease. Mumps vaccine is the best way to protect your child against mumps. It is usually given as part of a combination vaccine that protects against three diseases: measles, mumps, and rubella (MMR). This vaccine is only licensed for use in children who are 12 months through 12 years of age. 

The CDC says children should get two doses of MMR vaccine:

  • the first dose at 12 through 15 months of age, and
  • the second dose at 4 through 6 years of age.

The MMR vaccine is safe and effective. Most children don’t have any side effects from the vaccine. The side effects that do occur are usually very mild, such as a fever or rash.

Your child’s doctor may also offer the MMRV vaccine, a combination vaccine that protects against four diseases: measles, mumps, rubella, and varicella (chickenpox). Talk to your child’s healthcare professional for help deciding which vaccine to use.

A single dose is not completely effective at preventing mumps. Teens, adults, college students, international travelers and health care workers are encouraged to make sure they had two doses of the MMR vaccine.

College students, international travelers and health care workers are encouraged to make sure they've had two doses of the MMR vaccine. A single dose is not completely effective at preventing mumps.

A third dose of vaccine isn't routinely recommended. But your doctor might recommend a third dose if you are in an area that is experiencing an outbreak. A study of a recent mumps outbreak on a college campus showed that students who received a third dose of MMR vaccine had a much lower risk of contracting the disease.

One final thought: if your medical records are not up to date and you are questioning your immune status, there are blood tests available that demonstrate your immunity to measles, mumps and rubella. If you were born before 1957, most people in that age group were likely infected by the virus naturally and have immunity. However, if you do not recall being exposed, or has never been vaccinated you are at risk for mumps, the CDC recommends at least one dose of the MMR vaccine.

Most health insurance plans cover the cost of vaccines. However, you may want to check with your insurance provider before going to the doctor.