Dear Doctor: Are mumps really dangerous? Thousands of people apparently may have been exposed at a cheerleading event a few months ago, which seemed to upset public health officials. My kids have been vaccinated, but I'm not sure if I have been, or even if I've had the disease. Should I be concerned?
Dear Reader: Mumps is a viral infection that affects the parotid glands, which are one of three sets of salivary glands. The virus spreads when tiny airborne droplets of saliva are released during a cough, a sneeze and even through speech. These droplets, which contain the active virus, can then be inhaled by anyone in the infected person's vicinity. The virus can also linger on hard surfaces that those aerosolized droplets have landed on, so touching an object in an infected person's room, or sharing a sick person's food, glassware, dishes or cutlery can put anyone without immunity at risk.
In the incident you mentioned, tens of thousands of people were exposed to mumps when they attended the National Cheerleaders Association All-Star National Championship, which was held in Dallas. An attendee from outside the state turned out to be sick with mumps and was in the contagious stage of the illness. Someone with mumps is capable of spreading the virus anywhere from a few days before and up to five days after the onset of parotitis, which is the characteristic facial swelling that often accompanies the illness. The first symptoms of mumps typically appear 16 to 18 days after infection, though it can be as soon as 12 days, or as many as 25 days.
Mumps is not considered to be dangerous in the majority of cases. But as with any viral illness, it does take a toll on the body. In addition to the swelling of the salivary glands, symptoms can include fever, headache, muscle aches, tiredness, general malaise and loss of appetite. Up to 40 percent of infected individuals will have few or no symptoms. About one-third of males with the mumps who are post-puberty will also experience pain or swelling of the testicles. Complications, which are thankfully rare, can include deafness, infertility, meningitis and encephalitis.
There is no targeted cure for mumps at this time, so treatment consists of addressing specific symptoms. In most people, the disease will run its course in two to three weeks. The best form of protection against mumps is the MMR vaccine, which targets measles and rubella as well as mumps. The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention recommends children get two doses of the MMR vaccine, first at 12 to 15 months of age, and again at 4 to 6 years of age. And because immunity appears to wane over time, some epidemiologists now recommend a third dose of the vaccine for individuals living near a mumps outbreak. You can track current mumps outbreaks at cdc.gov/mumps/outbreaks.html.
Since you don't know your immunity status, we recommend that you contact your primary care physician, who can check your immunity through bloodwork.
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