The paromyxovirus virus causes the viral infection known as mumps, which is very contagious, and considered to be a disease of childhood, although numbers have significantly reduced since the MMR vaccine was introduced - a combined vaccine given in several doses in early childhood protecting against measles, mumps and rubella. Mumps is therefore now most common in children who have not received the MMR vaccine as having the vaccine reduces the risk of getting mumps by around 85%.
Just like the viruses causing colds and flu, mumps is easily spread from infected saliva or mucus in the mouth, nose or throat and can be inhaled or picked up from contaminated surfaces and transferred to the mouth or nose.
The most common symptom of mumps is a swelling of the parotid salivary gland in front of the ear, usually affecting just one side of the face, and giving a characteristic ‘hamster’ appearance, known as parotitis. These swollen glands usually last for 5-8 days before settling down.
A few days before this swelling appears, people can also experience high temperatures, headaches and muscle aches. For this reason, people are most infectious a few days before the symptoms develop and for a few days after. About a quarter of people with mumps experience no symptoms and most children with mumps are back to normal after 10 days.
If you are unwell with mumps, the best way to stop the spread is by good hygiene. Regular and thorough washing of your hands, disposing of used tissues after coughing or sneezing, and avoiding contact with others for 5 days after your symptoms begin are all essential.
As an adult, it’s important to check that you received your full vaccination schedule – you can ask your parent or check on your doctor's records. If you missed one or even all of the doses, it’s not too late to catch up and get protected so speak to your doctor or practice nurse about getting vaccinated.
Mumps can sometimes be painful and make it difficult to eat and swallow and therefore taking some simple painkillers like paracetamol or ibuprofen, may help alleviate your symptoms. You can also use a cool compress on your glands to reduce any swelling or pain.
Mumps can cause swelling of the testicles in men, a condition known as orchitis. The testicle may be warm, swollen or painful and can be managed with simple painkillers. Around 1 in 4 males over the age of 12 with mumps develop this condition. Women may get a similar presentation in their ovaries, called oophoritis, causing lower tummy pain, nausea or vomiting, and fevers.
Mumps can also lead to viral meningitis, with flu-like symptoms, headaches and neck stiffness. These symptoms usually improve after 14 days and the risk of serious complications is low, unlike bacterial meningitis, which is an emergency.
Pancreatitis is also a risk, causing inflammation of the pancreas. It gives a sharp pain in the upper centre of the tummy, just below the breast bone, and can make you feel very sick.
If you think you or your child may have mumps, it’s important to discuss this with your doctor for a diagnosis to be made and for any complications to be managed. Mumps can usually be diagnosed by the symptoms but this needs a formal diagnosis. Your doctor has to notify cases of mumps to Public Health England by law, so they can monitor any outbreaks. This government body will arrange a swab to be sent to you.
Mumps is a very contagious disease and so whilst you are unwell, you should reduce your contact with other people, for at least 5 days after your symptoms began. We would advise you to stay home from school and work, and not socialise with others. You are not fit for work.
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