Posted March 22, 2019

Mumps 101: Your questions answered by an infectious disease specialist

Professor of Medicine Peter Axelrod, an infectious disease physician at Temple University Hospital, answers common questions that have come up during the university’s mumps outbreak.

A graphic that reads "Health FAQ"

UPDATE: For the most up-to-date information about the mumps outbreak, see the university's official FAQ page

With the current outbreak of mumps on campus, staying healthy is at the forefront of everyone’s mind. 

And even though there’s no treatment for the virus that causes mumps—just relief for its symptoms—there are several important steps you can take to protect yourself or, if you have the virus, to avoid spreading it to your friends and family.

Peter Axelrod, a doctor at Temple’s Lewis Katz School of Medicine who specializes in infectious diseases, answered some common questions that have arisen amid the mumps outbreak and shared tips on how students, faculty and staff can work to stay healthy.

Q: What are the symptoms of the mumps?
A: Generally speaking, the first day or two of symptoms are not really that different from other common infections. They are very flu-like, so typically people have fever, headache and muscle aches. Those symptoms usually last for one to two days, and then after that, you start to get swelling of the salivary glands. The most common one is the parotid gland, which is the gland a little in front of ears and down a little. Swelling can occur on one or both sides—usually both. Some people will only have a cough and their salivary glands will never swell, but that’s relatively uncommon. 

Q: How are the mumps treated?
A: Treatment is all about trying to make the symptoms better. Sometimes Tylenol, sometimes drugs like Advil, Motrin or Aleve. Some specialists suggest warm or cold compresses for the face.

Q: Why don’t the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) or the city Department of Public Health recommend that the university close during this outbreak?
A: It’s really a balancing of the good of shutting down and the bad of shutting down. A quarter of the undergraduates are seniors, and they may have jobs waiting, they may have school waiting, and if they don’t graduate, then that’s a big problem. So you have to balance the needs of the students against the danger to the students. 

According to an email I got today, the total number of cases at Temple now is about 75. If there were 75 cases of measles, it would certainly make sense to close the school, because measles is a much more dangerous infection than mumps.  If there were 75 cases of bacterial meningitis, school would likely have long ago been closed, because that’s a life-threatening illness with significant mortality. 

Mumps can cause complications, but it’s generally a less severe infection than, say, measles or bacterial meningitis. It could cause a week or two of illness, and it’s unpleasant, but the school and health department are trying to balance what would happen to students if the school was closed, compared to what would happen if they didn’t close it.

Q: What’s the likelihood of having a severe complication related to the mumps?
A: The most common side effect, which is very unpleasant, is testicular infection in men. That occurs in about 15 percent to 30 percent of adult males. It very rarely results in any kind of permanent damage. In women, ovarian infection is estimated at about 5 percent, and this can cause lower abdominal pain and fever. Aseptic (non bacterial) meningitis, causes a bad headache in the back of your head and a stiff neck; it is is estimated to occur in 1 percent to 10 percent of cases. It’s not dangerous, just unpleasant. There can also be an effect on hearing (caused by an infection of the inner ear), but it’s very rarely permanent. 

Q: How can students protect themselves from catching the mumps?
A: Mumps is spread through droplets in the air, and generally, people are most contagious about one to two days before their salivary glands become swollen and painful—but usually they start to have other symptoms before that. It’s most contagious during that flu-like period before salivary gland swelling. So if it’s possible to stay away from people who are starting to get sick, that’s great, but I don’t know how realistic that is. Stay away from crowds and big parties if you can. If I were on Main Campus, I would get another dose of the vaccine—that may be more helpful than trying to avoid crowds.

Q: What should students do if they think they have the mumps?
A: The recommendation is to self-isolate for five days, because by the end of five days, contagiousness is quite low.. Don’t go to class. Stay home and rest, drink fluids, and take Tylenol, Motrin or Advil. If you were in contact with someone who has the mumps and you start to feel sick, then you really should try not to expose other people. 

Q: How does mumps compare with other infectious diseases, like the flu and measles?
A: In general, the severity of the flu is similar to that of the mumps, where there are rarely severe complications, but you generally feel horrible and can’t get out of bed for several days, but then you get better. Roughly speaking, an average kind of flu and an average case of mumps are similarly uncomfortable. Measles is different—it is more dangerous.

Q: Is there anything else you think students should know?
A: Epidemics are frightening. Going into your car without a seatbelt is probably more dangerous than getting the mumps, but nobody panics about that—there’s something about a contagious disease which differs from other risks in life; you feel like you can’t control it, and I think that’s the frightening part. 

Something like mumps at your university, feels like a risk you can’t control, so I think it makes people nervous. But the actual risk of anything serious is really low. It’s a risk of being out of commission for a week or a week and a half just feeling crummy. 

There are about 75 cases out of 40,000 students, but let’s say there were 100—say they missed some. That’s 100 out of 40,000, so that’s roughly a 0.25 percent risk. It’s probably a little higher if you live in a dorm, but the absolute risk is very low compared to other things. The risk of flu in an epidemic, for example, is usually 1 percent to 2 percent, so contracting mumps would be roughly five to 10 times less likely than getting the flu during a flu epidemic. 

Student Health Services is holding two vaccination clinics, where anyone with a TUid can receive a vaccine for free. No appointments are required for the clinics, which will be held in Mitten Hall’s Great Court Wednesday, March 27, and Friday, March 29, from 9 a.m.–4 p.m. 

Students with additional questions or concerns should contact Student Health Services at or 215-204-7500.

—Morgan Zalot