The Problem with Mumps

It's worse as we get older.


At first glance, mumps seems like many other viruses. It causes fever, tiredness, muscle aches, headache, loss of appetite, and maybe some respiratory symptoms.

Oh, and it makes kids look like chipmunks. The salivary glands become swollen - either one or both. But the swelling is temporary and only lasts 7-10 days.

Some have no symptoms. About 15-20% have no symptoms.

There is no specific treatment for mumps. There is nothing nurses and doctors can do to make mumps go away quicker.

So what's the big deal about mumps?

It Is Highly Infectious

It is thought that each patient with Mumps will infect 4 to 7 other people, if people are not vaccinated. If others are all (or mostly vaccinated), the chain of transmission will not continue.

Most are infectious before they have salivary gland swelling (also called parotitis). So they may infect others, not knowing they are a risk to others. The incubation period is usually 16-18 days (can be 12 to 25). People are usually the most infectious 1-2 days before salivary gland swelling and 5 days after.

The virus spreads in saliva or respiratory secretions. It can spread by close contact and kissing. If saliva or respiratory secretions end up on an object, that object can spread the infection to someone else. So it can spread by sharing utensils or water bottles.

Highly infectious diseases can spread quickly, affecting schools, health clinics, and hospitals. They can be a real strain on resources - and not just for those who are sick, but for others as well, who rely on these institutions.

It Can Have Complications

Most do not have severe complications; a small number do.

Hearing loss occurs in about 1 to 20,000. Encephalitis, a dangerous inflammation of the brain, happens in fewer than 2 in 100,000 cases. Of those with encephalitis, about 1% die. Others may develop seizures, paralysis, or other neurologic complications, but these are all rare. Mumps can also, in rare cases, lead to pancreatitis, inflammation of the pancreas, which can be very painful.

The Disease Is Worse in Adults​​

Mumps can have more complications in those who are older. Infections in people who are older— teens and adults—becomes more common as an infection, like mumps, becomes less common. Those who aren't vaccinated may not run into the infection as children. Instead, they may not have their first contact with mumps until they are adults.

Symptoms last longer in those who are older. Adults are more likely to have encephalitis or meningoencephalitis (inflammation of tissue surrounding the brain and spinal cord as well as inflammation of the brain). About 1 in 10 adults with mumps will have meningitis, which usually has a good prognosis.

Those who are past puberty also have a complication not usually seen in those who are younger. Some have swollen testicles or ovaries.

Testicle Swelling and Shrinkage​​

1 in 4 men (including teens past puberty) will develop pain and swelling in their testicles (orchitis).

This is usually sudden and affects only one testicle, about 4-8 days after having salivary gland swelling. The swelling can also happen late, up to 6 weeks later. 

About half of men (or sometimes 30-40%) are expected to notice some shrinkage in the size of their testicles. About 1 in 10 will have a drop in their sperm count. This drop in sperm production is concerning but is thought to only very rarely lead to infertility.

Men can use compresses, supportive underwear, and discuss with their doctor pain medications for this disorder.

Swollen Ovaries​​

Women likewise can have swollen ovaries. This is harder to detect.

It is thought 1 in 20 women past puberty will develop oophoritis, the swelling of ovaries, which can be associated with lower abdominal pain, fevers, and feeling unwell. Symptoms usually go away as the infection clears, but any effect on ovaries can cause concern for those affected.

Mumps also leads in about 3 in 10 women to mastitis, an inflammation of breast tissue, which can be painful. Mumps can also be associated with first-trimester miscarriages.

The problem, then is, mumps is a more serious disease in adults. As many do not have the infection as children, it becomes more serious in adults who haven't yet been vaccinated.