What is Mumps?

Smallpox Cell

Mumps is a contagious viral disease that affects the salivary glands, most often spread through saliva. It was once a common occurrence in the United States and elsewhere but the vaccine has become routine, cutting down on the number infections drastically in recent decades.

The parotid glands at the front and sides of the jaw around the ears, which produce saliva, are the ones primarily affected by a mumps infection. One of the first signs is swelling and pain in the cheeks and sides of the jaw (the word “mumps” once referred to “lumps” in the cheeks). However, many people don’t show any symptoms until two to three weeks after contracting the infection.

Aside from the marked swelling in the face, other symptoms of a mumps infection include fever, headache, aching muscles, fatigue, loss of appetite, and pain while chewing and swallowing. Because these signs can be indeterminate, and because mumps has become so rare, it may be difficult to identify mumps before the inflammation sets in; swollen salivary glands can also be confused for tonsillitis.

Shared saliva is how mumps is spread from person to person, and it doesn’t always require a direct exchange. Infected saliva can be transmitted by sharing drinks or utensils as well as inhaling tiny droplets while speaking to someone who is infected, or once they’ve sneezed or coughed.

Complications of mumps are rarely very serious, but they can be if left untreated. The most common side effects or complications include swelling in other areas besides the face such as the testicles, pancreas, ovaries, and spinal cord. Without appropriate treatment, serious issues such as sterility, hearing loss, pancreatitis, and meningitis can develop from the mumps virus and cause lasting damage.

If you believe you or your child may have mumps, it’s important to let your doctor know when you make an appointment, in case they’d like to put you in a separate waiting room. A blood test can determine whether or not you have the virus. In most cases, treatment is simply handled at home with rest, plenty of fluids, and over the counter painkillers and compresses to ease swelling.


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