Mumps is a viral infection spread through the exchange of saliva. It affects the salivary glands around the neck, jaw, and ears, and causes noticeable swelling in these areas and the cheeks, although it can also spread to other parts of the body. Despite the recent increase in childhood vaccines cutting down on the number of outbreaks, you can become infected at any age, although it most often occurs in children.
The virus that causes mumps is transferred through saliva, so even though adults may be more careful about things like sharing drinks or utensils than children are, they can still contract the illness by being exposed to someone who is infected: standing close as they talk, or after they’ve sneezed or coughed can lead to inhaling droplets of saliva.
Because the glandular swelling that indicates mumps may not appear for a week or two after exposure — if at all — many adults may continue to go to work and go about their daily activities without knowing they’re infected; the other symptoms are flulike and vague enough to be mistaken for other illnesses. Once you suspect or identify mumps, it’s important to stay home to avoid spreading the virus to others.
The vaccine that prevents mumps, known as the MMR vaccine since it also protects against measles and rubella, is usually given to children in one dosage at 12 to 15 months old, with a second dose between the ages of 4 and 6. It’s usually very effective in preventing the disease. However, some adults may not have received the immunization as children: it is recommended that adults born after 1957 (who are not pregnant) should receive the vaccine if they haven’t already. It’s also important for young adults to make sure they received the vaccine, or take steps to get it, before going to college, where increased numbers and close quarters make contracting it more likely; the same goes for people traveling outside the United States, where mumps is a more common occurrence and they are at an increased risk. A second dose of the MMR virus may be advised in these cases.
If you had mumps as a child, you’re immune for life. If you’re unsure whether or not you’ve received the vaccination or been infected, however, consult your doctor: although it’s rare, mumps can have serious complications even in adults, including hearing loss, sterility, and meningitis.