What is mumps?

Mumps is a contagious infection, caused by a virus called paramyxovirus. It can be a potentially serious disease for children and young adults.

Mumps is most common in children over the age of two who have not been vaccinated. It is also common in teenagers and young adults, although older people may also contract the disease.

How is mumps spread?

Mumps is spread from person to person via airborne droplets when an infected person coughs or sneezes, or through direct contact with the infected person/contaminated items.

Once a person has become infected with mumps, it takes two to three weeks for the symptoms to appear. However an infected person can spread the infection even when they do not have any symptoms - the disease is contagious from seven days before and up to nine days after the onset of symptoms.

What are the symptoms of mumps?

Symptoms of mumps may include:

The swollen cheeks or jaw that often appear in mumps are due to swelling of the parotid glands (salivary glands, which are located just in front of each of the ears). The swelling can last from three to four days to a week and the person may complain of soreness and pain when they open their mouth.

Some people who have been infected with mumps do not experience any symptoms at all, while up to half only experience non-specific, or primarily respiratory symptoms.

Symptoms normally decrease after one week and have usually resolved within 10 days.

Are there any complications of mumps?

Mumps can go on to affect many other glands in the body.

Inflammation of the testicles (orchitis) in men and post-pubertal boys is a common complication of mumps. The onset is sudden, causing pain and swelling of the scrotum, and a raised temperature. In rare cases this can lead to sterility.

Inflammation of the ovaries (oophoritis) and breasts (mastitis) can also occur in post-pubertal females.

Meningitis can also occur as a result of mumps. Meningitis is an extremely serious disease, caused by inflammation in the brain or spinal cord. When it occurs following mumps, it is likely to be milder than the normal strain. Mumps-related meningitis occurs three to 10 days after the onset of mumps. Symptoms include a high temperature, restlessness, headaches, aversion to bright light, possible vomiting and a stiff neck.

Other complications following mumps can include inflammation of the pancreas and encephalitis (brain inflammation). Very rarely, complications of the disease can be fatal.

Treatment of mumps

There is no cure for mumps, so treatment of the disease is aimed at relieving the symptoms. This includes bed rest and drinking plenty of fluids.

People who have been infected with mumps should not attend school/college/work while they are still infectious (up to 10 days after the onset of symptoms), in order to prevent the disease spreading to others.

Can mumps be prevented?

There is a highly effective vaccination against mumps, which is given to children in combination with a measles and rubella vaccination (known as the MMR vaccine). The MMR vaccine is administered free of charge to babies aged 12-15 months in Ireland, as part of the Childhood Immunisation Programme. A booster is then given at the age of four to five, when children begin school.

A single dose of the vaccine prevents mumps in over 90% of immunised children. When the second booster dose is given, over 99% of immunised children are protected.

Are there any reasons why I should not vaccinate my child?

There are only a few reasons why a child should not be immunised with the MMR vaccine. Your doctor will advise you if there is a reason why your child should not be vaccinated.

As with any vaccines, side effects can occur with the MMR vaccine. However these are very rare and the small risks associated from having the vaccine are far outweighed by the risks associated with contracting any of the infections it prevents.

There have been concerns in recent years over claims that the MMR vaccine is associated with Crohn's disease and autism. However, the original research, which prompted concerns, has been totally discredited. The research has not been replicated elsewhere,

However unfounded, the publicity surrounding this research led to a decline in the number of parents in Ireland getting their children vaccinated - which left large numbers of children susceptible to infection.

If not enough people within a population have immunity against a disease, it means that outbreaks are still able to occur. An outbreak of mumps among teenagers and college students in Ireland during 2004-2005 is thought to be due to many of these individuals not receiving the MMR vaccine in their childhood, or only receiving one dose.