In the 19th century, mumps was believed to be “a specific morbid miasma, generated during peculiar conditions of the atmosphere.” We now know that it is a viral infection of the salivary glands in the neck caused by a paramyxovirus, and it usually occurs in childhood.
The responsible virus spreads in microscopic droplets of fluid that come from the nose and mouth with every breath. The incubation period is two to three weeks, and the patient is infectious from one or two days before the symptoms appear until all the swelling of the glands has disappeared. An attack usually gives lifelong immunity.
It may be a significant disease, particularly in adults, when inflammation of the brain, testicles (mumps orchitis) and ovaries may occur. The kidneys, heart and thyroid gland may also be damaged, and very rarely, death may occur. Mumps orchitis may result in permanent damage to the testicles and infertility, particularly in adults.
The symptoms may include fever, swollen tender salivary glands just under and behind the jaw, headache, and a general feeling of illness. Sometimes one side of the neck is involved, and not the other, then the other side may swell up several days after the first side has subsided.
Patients often experience additional pain in the gland if spicy or highly flavoured food is eaten, or even smelled.
Treatment involves rest, with aspirin or paracetamol and/or codeine for the pain and fever, but if complications occur, further medical advice should be sought. Recovery is usually uneventful after an eight to twelve day course. Exclusion from school is mandatory for the course of the disease.
A vaccine is available that gives lifelong protection, and is usually given combined with those against measles and German measles (rubella) at twelve months and five years of age. The mumps vaccine was first introduced in 1980.