A guide to mumps — and how to avoid it

As cases of the highly-infectious virus continue to rise across Ireland, Liz Connor talks to an expert about avoiding and managing mumps.
A guide to mumps — and how to avoid it

PROTECT YOURSELF: The MMR vaccine guards against illnesses such as mumps and measles

MUMPS has been back in the headlines recently, with reports of break-outs in colleges and schools across the country.

There were 278 cases in the first six weeks of the year, compared with 43 for the same time last year, according to the HSE’s Health Protection Surveillance Centre.

The mumps virus is known for being highly contagious, affecting the salivary glands and causing puffy cheeks and a swollen jaw, which can make it difficult to eat.

It most commonly affects children, but teenagers and adults who haven’t been vaccinated can be at risk too.

In light of the recent outbreak, students are being urged to ensure they’re protected, as those who haven’t had two doses of the MMR vaccine are particularly vulnerable.

“Mumps is a contagious illness which causes the parotid glands — located on either side of the mouth and in front of both ears — to become swollen,” says Dr Arun Thiyagarajan, Bupa Health Clinics’ expert in the UK.

“While it’s much less common for people to contract mumps now because of the measles, mumps and rubella (MMR) vaccination, there are still occasional outbreaks in those who have not been immunised.

“The MMR vaccine triggers the immune system to produce antibodies against measles, mumps and rubella so that if someone comes into contact with one of the diseases, the immune system should recognise it and produce the antibodies needed to fight it.”

So, what do you need to know about mumps? Here, Dr Thiyagarajan highlights the key points...

How do you actually catch mumps?

“Mumps can be spread in the same way we catch colds, as it’s an airborne virus,” explains Thiyagarajan.

“An infected person coughing or sneezing and releasing tiny droplets of saliva, which are inhaled by someone else, spreads the illness.”

If an infected person touches shared surfaces, such as desks or door handles, after wiping their mouth, this could also potentially spread contaminated saliva.

“You’re infectious from two days before the onset of mumps symptoms, to nine days afterwards. Even if you don’t appear to be showing any symptoms, you can still be infectious, which is why mumps can spread so easily,” Thiyagarajan adds.

Good hand hygiene — regularly washing your hands with soap and water — is always a good idea, and avoid sharing drinks, food and utensils, as these can all potentially spread the mumps virus from person to person too.

What are the symptoms of mumps?

“The initial symptoms are not too dissimilar to those of the flu, and start about two to three weeks after you’ve contracted the illness,” says Thiyagarajan.

Headaches, a high temperature, loss of appetite, fatigue, muscle and joint aches are all indications you may be infected.

A couple of days after initial symptoms surface, you may develop earache and it may hurt to chew and swallow. Then there’s the tell-tale mumps swelling, and people can feel really quite unwell.

“In adults, the symptoms can occasionally be a little worse and may develop into swollen testicles or ovaries. Swollen ovaries can cause pain in a woman’s (abdomen) and a swollen testicle may cause some discomfort too, but this varies case-by-case,” Thiyagarajan adds.

He notes that it’s always advisable to seek medical advice if you experience anything like unusual swelling of the testicles or abdominal pain, as it may be necessary to rule out any other possible causes too.

Can mumps be dangerous?

It might make you quite poorly, but health experts say that mumps usually passes without causing serious damage to a person’s health. However, in more rare cases, complications can develop, so it’s important to be aware.

“Reports of serious complications of mumps are rare, but include viral meningitis and pancreatitis, of which the main symptom is pain in centre of your tummy,” says Thiyagarajan, who urges that you should consult your doctor immediately if you experience symptoms of this.

For children who haven’t been vaccinated and show symptoms of mumps, it’s vital they visit a doctor to be checked.

“Equally, pregnant women that suspect they may have the illness should seek medical advice as it can increase the chances of miscarriage, particularly in the first three months of pregnancy,” notes Thiyagarajan.

There have also been associations of fertility problems in men who had mumps that badly affected their testicles, but this is generally rare too.

Who is most at risk of mumps?

Basically, anyone who hasn’t been properly vaccinated.

“The MMR vaccine was introduced more than 30 years ago in the UK, meaning that cases of mumps may occur in adults who haven’t received the vaccine during their childhood immunisation schedule,” says Thiyagarajan.

“Today, the MMR vaccine is given as a single injection to babies as part of their routine vaccination schedule, usually within a month of their first birthday.

“They then have a second injection of the vaccine before starting school, usually around four months after their third birthday.

“As the recent news has shown, outbreaks can still happen if people haven’t been vaccinated, so it’s important that you and your children are covered,” says Thiyagarajan.

“To find out if you’ve had the MMR injection, it’s advised that you check with your GP.”

Once you’ve been infected by the mumps virus, you normally develop a life-long immunity to further infection — so if you haven’t had the injection but have experienced mumps already, you are considered lower-risk.

How is mumps treated?

If you’re unlucky enough to catch mumps, Thiyagarajan says it’s very much a case of letting the virus run its course, while making the usual efforts to relieve symptoms and avoid spreading it to others.

Mumps can make you feel really poorly, so bed rest is the best approach.

Over-the-counter painkillers can help — a pharmacist or doctor can advise on the suitable options for children — and applying a warm or cool compress might help soothe swollen glands.

It’s a good idea to eat soft or liquidy foods, to avoid the discomfort of too much chewing, and getting plenty of fluids is vital.

If you’re suffering with some of the more extreme symptoms such as swollen testicles, Thiyagarajan recommends seeing your GP as soon as possible — and check in with the doctor too if symptoms suddenly worsen.

Anybody who has mumps should stay away from school or work for at least nine days after their symptoms have first started to appear, unless they are instructed otherwise by their doctor.

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