Health officials sent a letter to all participants, warning them to watch for symptoms of the highly contagious virus.

By Amanda MacMillan
March 07, 2018

People from 39 states and nine countries may have been exposed to mumps at a cheerleading competition held last month in Dallas, according to Texas health officials. A person who was infected with mumps at the time traveled to the competition from another state, the Dallas Morning News reported yesterday, prompting the state Department of Health to send cautionary letters to all participants.

No one in Texas has developed mumps yet in connection with the competition, and hopefully it stays that way. But even if nothing else comes of the incident, it's still a good reminder about how serious (and how contagious) mumps can be. "It's a small risk for most people who were at the competition," a department spokesperson told Health. "But we wanted to let people know so they could look out for mumps symptoms, just in case." 

If you’re not too familiar with mumps, it’s probably because vaccination campaigns over the last half-century have made outbreaks few and far between. (Before a vaccine became available in the 1960s, around 186,000 cases were reported each year.) In recent years, however, the annual number of cases reported to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) has increased—from 229 in 2012 to 6,366 in 2016. Health experts believe that a drop in vaccination rates is at least partially responsible.

So what exactly is mumps, and why is it so worrisome? Here’s what you should know.

Mumps can cause serious complications

Mumps is a viral illness that affects the saliva-producing glands (called the parotid glands) in the face and neck. It can cause swelling in these glands, which can result in pain, difficulty swallowing, and puffy cheeks. It can also cause general feelings of sickness—like fatigue, fever, and muscle pain—although some people who contract the disease have no symptoms at all.

Most people who get sick with mumps recover, but complications can occur. It can cause swelling of the testes or ovaries, and on rare occasions, it can lead to hearing loss or dangerous swelling around the brain, known as meningitis. In the most serious cases, seizures, paralysis, or death can occur.

It’s highly contagious

Mumps is spread through saliva and respiratory droplets created when a person coughs or sneezes, the Department of Health letter sent to competition attendees states. Sharing cups and utensils can also spread the virus, and most outbreaks happen in settings where people are in close quarters—like in a college dorm or a team locker room.

Mumps symptoms usually develop between 16 and 18 days after exposure to the virus, but they can also begin as long as 25 days later, according to the CDC. (The competition ended February 25.) “People with mumps are infectious three days before to five days after swollen glands appear,” the letter states.

People without symptoms can also carry and shed the virus as well. That’s one of the reasons it spreads so fast and so far, Aileen Marty, MD, a professor of infectious diseases at Florida International University told Health in 2016: “Infected people shed the virus before they start to have symptoms,” she said. “So you don’t really know who to protect yourself from.”

RELATED: 8 Infections You Can Catch at the Gym–and How to Avoid Them

Vaccines offer protection, but they’re not a sure thing

Kids usually get a mumps, measles, and rubella vaccine (MMR) at 12 to 15 months of age and a second dose at 4 to 6 years. Earlier this year, the American Academy of Pediatrics added an optional third dose of the vaccine—to be administered during mumps outbreaks—to its recommended childhood immunization schedule.

Doctors also recommend that adults, with the exception of pregnant women or people who have compromised immune systems, get vaccinated if they didn’t have those two shots when they were kids.

“If you are unsure of you or your child’s vaccination status, or if your child has not received both doses, consult your healthcare provider and explain the situation,” the Department of Health’s letter to competition participants states. It also points out that while vaccination is “the best protection” against mumps, vaccinated people can still become infected. Getting two doses of the MMR vaccine is about 88% effective in protecting against mumps, according to the CDC.

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If you have symptoms, stay home

“Anyone diagnosed with or suspected of having mumps should stay home five days after swollen glands appear,” the letter states. “If you, your child, or any other individuals linked to this event experience or have experienced mumps symptoms, please contact your healthcare provider and inform them of your exposure.”

There’s no treatment for the disease itself, but doctors can prescribe anti-inflammatory drugs to reduce fever and pain. They can also monitor patients for complications and can provide IV fluids and additional care if the condition becomes more serious.