The Mumps Is Not A Muppet

This week’s guest columnist is Dr. Rati Venkatesh, a Family Practice resident at University Hospital and Clinics here in Lafayette.

This winter we’ve seen nearby outbreaks of Mumps in Arkansas and Texas.  Last week a mother brought her 3 year-old daughter into the Emergency Department worried about just that.  The girl had fever and headache and mom had just heard the news.  Instead the girl turned out to have influenza virus, which causes many of the same symptoms.  But this raised the question: what exactly is the Mumps?

Though it sounds like a muppet character, the mumps is an illness caused by a highly contagious virus.  The classic sign of mumps is swollen parotid glands, which are glands at the back of your cheeks.  When they swell you look like a chipmunk. Mumps usually starts with fever, headache, and maybe vomiting.  Symptoms also include cough, runny nose, poor appetite, muscle aches, and generally feeling run down.  Sure sounds like the flu- no wonder that mom was worried!

The biggest concern about mumps is that in rare cases it can cause encephalitis, or brain infection and swelling.  In teenagers and adults, it can also cause exquisitely painful swelling of testicles or ovaries.  Before the mumps vaccine was invented in 1967, people were understandably scared of this disease. Now with the MMR (Measles/Mumps/Rubella) vaccine, mumps has mostly passed into history books, except for the occasional case.

If there is a nearby outbreak, what do you do?  First, speak to your doctor.  If your child has concerning symptoms, she can order the mumps blood test.  A big clue to whether your child has the mumps is exposure- was your child around someone with mumps? Figuring this out can be tricky, because it can be weeks after exposure before you begin to have symptoms.  Who remembers where they were two weeks ago- it’s tough enough remembering what you had for lunch yesterday!  So usually when it comes to the individual kid, we count on the classic chipmunk-cheeks to make the diagnosis.

How do you get the mumps anyway? Transmission is by respiratory droplets, which means an infected kid coughs and sneezes, or wipes his slimy hands, on his playmates.  The new victims stick those virus-laden droplets on their fingers, into their noses and mouths.

So to prevent mumps, kids should do the things to prevent catching other infectious diseases, like colds and stomach viruses: they should wash their hands.  Frequent hand-washing should be taught and encouraged at home and school.  Hand sanitizer dispensers are readily available in public places, and are a reasonable substitute.  I teach kids to wash hands to the Happy Birthday song- if you wash all surfaces of your hands using the amount of time it takes to sing the song, you’ve done a great job of disinfecting.

Also use disinfectant wipes to clean household and school surfaces.  Those respiratory droplets and their viruses can linger on tables and doorknobs, and contaminate unsuspecting hands that touch them later.  Teach your kids to cough and sneeze into the crook of their elbows- this keeps grubby hands from infecting surfaces too.

If your child gets the mumps, the only treatment is for symptoms- there’s no medicine to make it go away quicker.  Use acetaminophen (Tylenol) or ibuprofen for pain and fever.  The chipmunk cheeks or swollen testicles of mumps can really hurt, so don’t skimp on those medicines!  Ice packs can also soothe these sensitive parts.  Most kids and adults get over mumps in about 2 weeks.  Occasionally children need hospitalization for pain control or IV fluids.  If they get encephalitis, they’ll need intensive care to control brain swelling.

Vaccination is great protection against mumps.  Kids get their first MMR shot at 12 months-old, and the second before kindergarten.  This vaccine is very safe, much safer than the car ride to the doctor’s to get it!  Some get a mild fever a week after vaccination, but serious complications are quite rare.  Like any vaccine, your child is incredibly more likely to catch and be harmed by mumps, than be harmed by the vaccine.

So all concerned moms and dads out there, if your child has flu-like symptoms (cough, fever, headache, fatigue) with swollen cheeks, it might be the mumps!  See your doctor for testing.  But with vaccination, odds are you won’t ever be in this worrisome place.