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What is mumps?

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The paramyxo virus causes mumps. Of the common childhood illnesses, it is the disease with the longest incubation period and can take as long as three weeks from infection to outbreak. The virus is contagious for about a week before the disease breaks out, which can make it difficult to track down the source of infection. Mumps is a viral infection spread by airborne droplets from the nose or throat. However, it is the least contagious of the five major children’s diseases and requires close contact before infection can occur. Though small children can get mumps, the disease is most common after the age of two. Today, most children are vaccinated against mumps with the MMR (measles, mumps, rubella) vaccination. The virus enters the body through the airways, then passes around the body in the bloodstream.  It can end up almost everywhere – the kidneys, thyroid gland, pancreas, sexual glands and, not least, the salivary gland. The virus thrives in the parotid salivary glands which lie in the cheeks just in front of the ears.

In some cases of adult men with mumps, the disease infects the testicles (orchitis) causing swelling, pain, soreness and a higher temperature. This often occurs about a week after the disease has broken out, and is a serious infection which may cause sterility. However, among the few sexually mature men who contract mumps, only half get orchitis. Some of these are affected in both testicles, and even then it does not necessarily cause sterility. If sterility occurs, there is still a chance that fertility may return.

Boys who have not reached puberty and are not sexually mature get this kind of inflammation of the testicles. Inflammation of the pancreas (pancreatitis) is a recognised but uncommon complication. A less rare complication of mumps is meningitis, which may appear three to ten days after the onset of mumps. This is an inflammation of the membranes of the brain or spinal cord. Meningitis is a serious disease, but in connection with mumps it is usually mild. However, it still requires close attention and special care of the patient. The symptoms of mumps-meningitis are:

  • High temperature and restlessness
  • Headache
  • Aversion to bright light
  • Possible vomiting
  • Typically a stiff neck, leaving patients unable to touch their chest with their chin and causing the head to bend slightly backwards

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