What is Mumps?
Mumps is a viral infection that often causes swelling in your salivary glands. It usually isn’t serious, but it’s easily spread through saliva and mucus. It can be spread just through talking, sharing utensils, and coughing, for instance.
It’s rare now, since a mumps vaccine became part of the recommended series of childhood immunizations decades ago. But outbreaks still happen, and have been on the rise. Health departments have reported several thousand cases since 2015.
We most often think about mumps among children -- and for good reason, since they're usually the ones who get it.
But adults can and do get the virus.
Symptoms can be so mild you might not know you’re infected. Or you may feel like you’re getting the flu. The most obvious sign of mumps is swollen saliva glands, but this symptom shows up in less than half of cases. Here’s what else to watch for:
- Body aches
- Loss of appetite
- Pain when you chew or swallow
- Pain the the salivary glands at your jawline
If you do show symptoms, they may not appear for 2 to 3 weeks after you’re infected.
If you think you or someone else has mumps, call your doctor for an appointment. And remember, it’s contagious. Avoid close contact with other people until at least 5 days after symptoms appear. But you may be able to spread the virus as much as seven days before and 9 days after your glands first begin to swell.
Causes of Mumps
You catch the virus that causes mumps by coming in contact with the saliva of someone who’s infected. It’s as easy as breathing. Droplets can be released into the air when people cough, sneeze or talk.
Being in a crowded environment with someone who has the virus can lead to an outbreak, so consider these kinds of environments where adults share space:
- Athletic teams
- College dorms
You can also spread mumps in other ways, like:
- Using another person’s lipstick
- Sharing cigarettes
Your doctor can diagnose mumps by listening to your symptoms and testing for the virus. The test might be done with a swab of your cheek or throat, or you might have a blood or urine test. In cases where the infection may have spread to the brain or spinal cord, you may need a spinal tap to test the cerebrospinal fluid.
Because mumps is caused by a virus, there’s no medicine that can cure it. Most people recover fully after a few weeks. To ease symptoms while you wait, try these simple home remedies:
- Get plenty of rest.
- Use cold or warm compresses on swollen glands.
- Take over-the-counter non-aspirin products like Advil and Tylenol.
- Don’t give aspirin to kids who have a virus. It’s thought to cause Reye’s syndrome, which can cause liver failure, brain swelling and death.
- Eat soft or liquid foods.
- Avoid anything sour, which causes you to make saliva.
Rarely, adults who have mumps might experience some hearing loss and decreased fertility. They sometimes have other symptoms that can include swelling of certain body parts, such as:
- Testicles (in males who’ve already gone through puberty)
- The brain (encephalitis, a potentially life-threatening condition)
- Tissue covering the brain and spinal cord (viral meningitis)
Mumps can cause a miscarriage if a woman gets it early in her pregnancy. In rare cases, it can lead to heart problems.
The combined measles-mumps-rubella vaccine (MMR) protects you from getting mumps. Young children should get two doses of the vaccine before they reach school age. The second shot wasn’t recommended until around 1990, though, so some adults might not have received it.
In an outbreak, just one dose might not be enough to keep you safe, so if you only received a single dose, talk to your doctor about getting another. Here are some other situations in which you might need the vaccine:
You’re a woman of childbearing age who is not pregnant.
You’re in college.
You work in a hospital or school.
You want to travel overseas or go on a cruise.
Talk to your doctor if you think you might be at risk.