Before vaccination against mumps became widespread in 1967, it was common for Americans to experience the fever, headache, muscle aches, fatigue, puffy cheeks, and swollen jaw caused by this contagious disease.
In the more than 50 years since, though, it’s become much rarer. The MMR vaccine, which protects against measles, mumps, and rubella, is very effective — it lowers your risk of getting the mumps by about 88 percent and has greatly reduced the number of mumps cases in the US.
“However, outbreaks can still occur when people aren’t vaccinated or don’t receive MMR booster shots, as the original immunization can become less effective over time,” explained Karen McGeehan, MD, physician at Penn Family Medicine Chestnut Hill. Since 2006, many US cities – including Philadelphia -- have reported outbreaks of this disease.
In February and March 2019, an outbreak hit close to home. More than 130 people, including Temple University students and community members, were diagnosed with mumps, according to information published by the school.
During a mumps outbreak, people who have been vaccinated can still get the disease. This is especially true if you didn’t receive both doses of the vaccine. However, the symptoms and complications are much less severe in people who are vaccinated compared with those who aren’t. Temple University now requires incoming students have the MMR vaccine.
In addition to getting vaccinated, knowing the signs of mumps can keep you and your loved ones safe. Here’s what you should know about mumps, how it spreads, and what you can do to stay healthy.
What Is Mumps — and How Do I Know if I Have It?
Dr. McGeehan says, “Mumps infects your saliva glands, which are right between your jaw and ears. About one-third of mumps victims have the tell-tale sign of puffy or lumpy cheeks, causing people to mumble when they speak." “Mumps” comes from “lumps” plus “mumble.”
The disease is most common in children — about 90 percent of all mumps infections occur in children 15 and younger. However, it’s becoming increasingly common for older teens and adults to get the mumps if they weren’t vaccinated as children. When this happens, complications are often more severe.
Mumps is a sneaky disease. You can be infected — and spread the virus to others — for up to a week before even feeling sick. There are signs you can look for, though, which usually last about 7 to 10 days. Symptoms of mumps include:
- Muscle aches
- Loss of appetite
- Swelling in your face
The mumps might feel like a severe cold, but it can be more dangerous. Though serious complications are rare, they can happen. Mumps infections can lead to:
- Hearing loss
- Brain infections (encephalitis)
- Swelling of the protective membranes (protective tissue) that cover the brain or spinal cord (meningitis)
- Swelling of the testicles or ovaries
- Kidney and pancreas problems
If untreated, mumps can be fatal. However, deaths caused by mumps are very rare.
If you have symptoms of mumps, your primary care provider can order tests, such as a blood test, nose swab, or throat swab, to confirm your diagnosis.
Mumps will eventually go away — typically in about 2 to 3 weeks — but there’s no medication or treatment to cure it. It will need to naturally run its course. If test results are positive for mumps, you’ll need to stay home to recover and avoid spreading the disease to others. Your physician will also monitor you for complications, such as meningitis.
The Mumps Virus: Easy to Get and Spread
Once you’ve had the mumps, you can’t get it again. However, that doesn’t mean you can’t spread it to others.
Mumps is highly contagious — it doesn’t even require personal contact to get it. You can get mumps by entering a room that an infected person left up to 2 hours earlier.
“The virus can spread if someone coughs or sneezes and you breathe in that air. It can also spread if you touch something that’s been coughed or sneezed on, and you then touch your own mouth,” said Dr. McGeehan
Outbreaks are most common in groups of people who spend a lot of time together and have physical contact. It’s easily spread by sharing water bottles or cups, kissing, practicing sports together, or living in close quarters, such as dormitories.
The vaccine is the only way to fully fend off the mumps. If you get the mumps, you can take the following steps to help ensure you don’t spread it to others:
- Cover up coughs and sneezes
- Wash your hands frequently with soap and water
- Do not share objects that could have saliva on them, such as cups or water bottles
- Avoid physical contact, such as shaking hands or kissing
- Disinfect surfaces, such as doorknobs or toys
- Do not go to work, school, or social events
Your Best Defense: The MMR Vaccine
Vaccines, such as the MMR vaccine, are the most effective forms of protection from diseases like mumps.
High vaccination rates have made mumps much less common. When the majority of people are vaccinated, outbreaks are smaller, shorter, and less severe.
The MMR vaccine is your best protection against mumps because there is no cure — only medicines that can help you feel better while your immune system tries to fight off the virus.
The MMR vaccine comes in two doses:
- First dose: for children 12 to 50 months old
- Second dose: for children 4 to 6 years old
Other than children, people who should receive the MMR vaccine include:
- Infants who will be traveling outside the US when they are between 6 and 11 months old
- Adults born in 1957 or later, unless they can provide evidence of immunity to the disease, such as a prior vaccination or having previously had the disease
- People who are close to an outbreak and may need a third dose of the vaccine
Who Shouldn’t Get the MMR Vaccine
There are some people who should not get the MMR vaccine because they are at a higher risk for complications from the vaccination. These people include those who:
- Have had severe, life-threatening reactions after a previous dose of the vaccine
- Are pregnant, or think they may be pregnant
- Have a weakened immune system, due to a disease such as cancer or medical treatments such as radiation
- Have recently had a blood transfusion
- Have gotten any other vaccines in the past 4 weeks, as that can decrease the MMR vaccine’s effectiveness
- Are not feeling well, beyond a mild illness such as a common cold
“Vaccines are rigorously tested and monitored, and they are among the safest medical products to use. Getting the vaccine is much less dangerous than getting mumps. However, as with any medical procedure, the MMR vaccine comes with risks,” explained Dr. McGeehan.
Mild complications that can occur include:
- Sore arm
- Redness or rash at the injection site
- Swollen glands
- Temporary joint pain
These reactions will usually occur within 2 weeks of the shot, and they’re less likely to occur after the second dose.
Protecting Against the Mumps
In addition to getting the vaccine, knowing the signs of mumps can help keep you and the people around you safe. If you suspect that you or someone in your family may have mumps, contact your primary care provider right away.