Down in the Dumps with the Mumps

MumpsI just received a notification that a case of mumps has been confirmed in Wisconsin, which is always a good time to review some of these diseases that we rarely think about (a blog from last year had talked about the measles outbreak). Although this one case does not signify an outbreak, mumps does have the occasional outbreak (earlier this year in Milwaukee, a couple of years ago in Madison, a large one at Ohio State a few years ago).

Mumps is a viral illness that can cause fever, body aches, headaches, fatigue, swelling of the salivary glands (think extreme chipmunk cheeks) or pain with chewing or swallowing. In males, mumps can lead to testicular inflammation that causes pain and swelling (like, the size of a grapefruit…yowza). In some women with mumps, inflammation of the ovaries can occur. Mumps can cause serious problems during pregnancy, even miscarriage. About a third of people who contract the mumps virus do not develop any symptoms – meaning you can have it and spread it without realizing it.

Mumps is spread by droplets of saliva or mucus from the mouth, nose, or throat of an infected person. Infected saliva can pass from one person to another when they share utensils, drinks, and even lip gloss. Mumps is also commonly spread when an infected person coughs or sneezes, and a non-infected person inhales droplets that contain the virus. Symptoms usually occur 14 to 18 days after infection (however the time between infection and illness can be as short as 12 days or as long as 25 days).  The big problem is that a person with mumps is most contagious before symptoms even appear, and remain contagious for about 5 days after they develop symptoms. For this reason, a suspected case is put in “quarantine” for 5 days from onset of symptoms; they are required to avoid school, work, social gatherings, and all other public settings during this time.

Good news is that there is a vaccine – it’s combined with measles and rubella to form the MMR vaccine. The 1st dose of MMR is usually given at 1 year of age, with 2nd dose between 4-6 years of age. Overall efficacy of the MMR vaccine is quoted at 88%, however this likely decreases over time. Though mumps vaccination cannot protect everyone (since it is a live vaccine, some people including immunocompromised or infants cannot receive it), the vaccine greatly lowers the number of people who get sick when exposed to the virus. If a community maintains a high vaccination rate, the risk of exposure declines too.

In addition to vaccination (check your records to make sure you’ve received both doses), here are additional ways to protect yourself from mumps (or any other illness, for that matter. This is just good common sense):


  • Don’t share eating or drinking utensils. Or lip gloss. Or used tissues (ewwww….gross….don’t ever share these!).
  • Cover your mouth and nose with a tissue when you cough or sneeze. If you don’t have a tissue available, cough or sneeze into your upper sleeve or elbow, not your hands. Try not to cough or sneeze in your doctor’s face when she is doing a physical exam…please and thank you.
  • Wash your hands frequently with soap and water or an alcohol-based hand cleaner.