Mumps is a viral illness that begins with flu-like symptoms, and is often followed by painful swelling of the salivary glands. In rare cases it may also cause more serious complications. Thanks to widespread vaccination, mumps has become a relatively rare illness. But sometimes it rears its ugly head in the form of regional outbreaks.
As you may have heard in the news, Washington state is experiencing just such an outbreak right now. According to the Washington State Department of Health, as there were 502 Washington residents suffering from mumps as of February 22—both east and west of the Cascades. This is a 24 percent increase over the tally on February 8. There are 198 cases in King County, 216 in Spokane County, and 53 in Pierce County.
Symptoms of Mumps
Mumps symptoms begin to develop after an incubation period that can range from 12-25 days. Mumps normally begins with a fairly ambiguous set of flu-like symptoms that can include:
- Muscle aches
- Poor appetite
But as the illness progresses, it causes painful swelling of the salivary glands (the parotid salivary glands in particular). This swelling, which may be easily visible, occurs in up to 90 percent of symptomatic mumps cases. Lab testing can confirm a mumps infection, although when doctors see patients with telltale symptoms during a mumps outbreak, diagnosis may occur without lab testing.
Mumps tends to be a relatively mild, self-limiting illness, although it can cause serious complications in rare cases. Mumps complications include:
- Painful testicular inflammation
- Hearing loss
- Ovarian inflammation
- Brain inflammation (encephalitis)
How Mumps is Treated
There is no cure for mumps, but the illness will typically resolve seven to ten days after symptoms begin. Clinical management of mumps involves treating mumps symptoms. Bed rest is recommended. Over the counter pain relievers such as acetaminophen may be used to treat pain and fever. Saltwater gargles, soft foods, and generous fluids can also provide some relief of symptoms.
What Do I Do if I Suspect I’m Infected with Mumps?
If you believe you may have mumps, seek a medical consultation right away. As a first step, Group Health members can call the Consulting Nurse Service at 1-800-297-6877 for a quick evaluation on the phone. The nurse you reach will assess your symptoms and determine whether a visit to the doctor is in order.
How Mumps Spreads
The mumps virus is highly contagious, and is spread by respiratory droplets and direct contact much like the flu and common cold. For example, infected people can spread the virus by coughing, sneezing, talking, sharing food or eating utensils, and touching objects that are later touched by others. It can spread quickly among those in close quarters – for instance in a college dormitory or daycare.
People infected with mumps are contagious beginning about seven days before developing symptoms, and remain contagious to about eight days after symptoms have faded, according to research published in the medical journal Clinical Infectious Diseases. It’s most contagious during the first five days after salivary glands begin to swell, and people with mumps should be isolated during that time.
Another facet of mumps that may promote its spread is that it’s possible to be infected but not have symptoms. Prior to the development of the mumps vaccine, up to 27 percent of mumps infections were asymptomatic (without symptoms), according Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC).
How to Protect Yourself from Mumps
The best way to prevent the spread of mumps is through immunization. The mumps vaccine is a component of the measles, mumps, and rubella (MMR) vaccine, which is usually given to children who are 12 to 15 months old, and then again at four to six years of age. The mumps vaccine is 88 percent effective in those that have received both rounds of immunization, according to the CDC. In other words, if you are fully vaccinated and exposed to mumps, you are nearly ten times less likely to become ill than someone who is unvaccinated. The vaccine is 78 percent effective in those who have received only one MMR immunization so far.
As for other prevention measures, the Washington Department of Health says that you should avoid kissing, hugging, or other close contact with anyone who is suspected of having mumps. Wash your hands thoroughly and regularly, disinfect frequently touched objects, and practice other common sense facets of cleanliness and hygiene.
What the Washington Mumps Outbreak Tells Us about the Importance of the MMR Vaccine
In the current Washington outbreak, slightly more vaccinated people than unvaccinated people have become infected. This may seem strange, but it actually speaks to the widespread adoption of the MMR vaccine. According the CDC, more than 92 percent of Americans aged 19-35 have received both rounds of the MMR. As noted above, the MMR vaccine prevents most, but not all, cases of mumps. Of the 92 percent who are fully vaccinated, 12 percent of that group may not have responded adequately to the vaccine and can still get sick. The small fraction of vaccinated people who may be vulnerable to mumps is still larger than the number of people who have not been vaccinated at all, which is the reason there are slightly more vaccinated people who have become sick than unvaccinated people.
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