Mumps is a contagious viral disease. It’s usually identified by swelling cheeks caused by inflamed parotid glands (the largest of the salivary glands). Sometimes there is no swelling and the infection only becomes apparent because of complications. 

A young boy being examined by a doctor for mumps

Mumps is caused by the mumps virus, which belongs to a family of viruses known as paramyxoviruses. These viruses are a common source of infection, particularly in children. People are infectious for about a week before and after they develop mump’s symptoms. The virus is shed in saliva from the infected salivary gland and in the urine. Infection usually occurs by contact with infected saliva, either directly (for example, by kissing), or indirectly, by airborne droplets. 

Mumps during pregnancy has not been associated with an increased risk of premature delivery or birth defects.

What are its symptoms?

Early symptoms of mumps include:

  • Headaches
  • Joint pain
  • Nausea
  • Dry mouth
  • Abdominal pain (mumps can cause pancreatitis)
  • Fatigue 
  • Loss of appetite
  • Fever 

Mumps can have a number of complications in adults and children. The most common of these is meningitis, which affects one in 10 people with mumps. Symptoms include:

  • Headache
  • Stiff neck
  • Avoidance of bright light 
  • Nausea
  • Vomiting 

Anyone who has not been naturally infected or vaccinated is at risk of mumps in their lifetime. 

The incubation period (time until symptoms begin) can be from 12–25 days, but is typically 16–18 days.

How is it diagnosed? 

If you suspect mumps, you need to contact your doctor immediately.  While the infection isn’t usually serious, mumps has similar symptoms to other, more serious types of infection, such as glandular fever (also known as Epstein-Barr virus) and tonsillitis. It’s always best to visit your doctor so he/she can confirm (or rule out) a mumps diagnosis. It’s also important to let your doctor know in advance if you’re coming in for an appointment, so necessary precautions — to avoid the spread of infection — can be taken.

Your doctor may order a virus culture or blood test. Your immune system normally makes antibodies to help you fight an infection, so if you have mumps, the blood test can detect the antibodies in your system that are fighting the mumps virus.

What are your treatment options? 

There is no drug that works against the mumps virus. All treatments for complications of mumps act to reduce particular symptoms. The infection usually passes within a week or two.

In the meantime, follow these measures:

  • Stay in bed until symptoms have passed
  • Take over-the-counter painkillers, such as ibuprofen or paracetamol, to relieve any pain (children aged 16 or under should not be given aspirin)
  • Drink plenty of fluids, but avoid acidic drinks such as fruit juice as these can irritate your parotid glands
  • Apply a warm or cool compress to your swollen glands
  • Eat soft or liquidised foods

If your symptoms don’t improve after seven days, or suddenly worsen, contact your doctor.

If left unsupervised without proper rest, mumps can lead to a host of complications, some of which can be life threatening. These include: 

  • Orchitis: Inflammation of the testicles which can lead to male infertility
  • Inflammation of the ovaries in females, although this usually does not affect fertility in women
  • Pancreatitis: Inflammation of the pancreas
  • Encephalitis: Inflammation of the brain
  • Meningitis: Inflammation of the lining around the brain and spinal cord
  • Deafness: Complete or partial, affecting one side or both
  • Miscarriage in pregnant women

Can it be prevented? 

The only way to avoid mumps or its complications is through vaccination. The mumps vaccine is usually available as part of the combined measles/mumps/rubella (MMR) vaccine. The recommended age for this vaccination is 15 months. This combined vaccine is not provided by the state health services in South Africa, but it is widely used in the private health sector. 

What to do now

Clicks Clinics stock the mump vaccination and are able to administer it. Speak to your Clicks pharmacist about it or book an appointment here.

IMAGE CREDIT: 123rf.com

The accuracy of this information was checked and approved by physician Dr Thomas Blake in July 2016