With school back in session, back-to-school germs tend to spread. It’s the time of year when fevers, runny noses, coughs and even rashes are commonplace.
Small spaces — like classrooms and dorm rooms — carry much of the blame, offering plenty of shared surfaces for germs to linger.
Handwashing can go a long way toward preventing the spread of illness, and vaccinations can keep many viruses from spreading broadly.
But viruses like measles and mumps — thought to have been wiped clean long ago in the United States — are finding their way back into schools and onto college campuses.
According to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC), 1,250 measles cases have been reported so far in 2019. This represents the largest number of reported measles cases in a single year since 1992. Mumps infections have been reported in 2,363 people so far in 2019. U.S. mumps cases decreased by more than 99% since 1989, when a two-dose measles, mumps and rubella vaccine program began. Most years, only a few hundred mumps cases were reported.
So, what’s causing the comeback?
“Health officials have linked measles and mumps outbreaks to unvaccinated individuals and those traveling internationally and bringing the virus back to the U.S.,” says primary care physician, Dr. Valerie Scott.
Know the signs of measles and mumps
How can you tell the difference between the cold or flu virus and a viral illness like measles or mumps?
“At first, it may not be easy to tell the difference,” says Dr. Scott. “Measles and mumps often start similarly to the common cold or flu, but each of these viruses has tell-tale signs and symptoms that will let you know you are dealing with something quite serious.”
In addition to common cold symptoms like fever, cough and runny nose, a person with the measles may also develop:
- Conjunctivitis (pink eye)
- A red “pinpoint” rash. This rash typically begins two to four days after other symptoms appear. It starts on the face and spreads to the body.
- Seizures (caused by high fever)
- Ear infections
The mumps can look a lot like the flu, with fever, headache, muscle aches and fatigue. What sets mumps apart are symptoms like:
- Extremely swollen salivary glands (under the ears)
- Painful swelling of the testicles or ovaries
In rare cases, both the measles and the mumps can lead to brain inflammation or swelling and even death.
“What’s particularly worrisome about the measles and mumps is the damage these viruses can cause to a person’s brain,” says Dr. Scott. “This is why an outbreak of any size leads health officials to take quick action.”
Preventing measles and mumps
The best way to prevent measles or mumps is by vaccinating against these viruses. The CDC recommends children get the MMR (measles, mumps and rubella) vaccine between the ages of 12 and 15 months old. A second dose should be given between the ages of four and six years old.
Unvaccinated individuals carry the highest risk for contracting the measles or mumps and can suffer from the most severe complications caused by these viruses.
Those most at risk for contracting measles or mumps include:
- Children who are not yet old enough to be fully vaccinated.
- People with allergies or immune system problems that prevent them from being vaccinated.
“Large-scale vaccination efforts create what’s called ‘herd immunity,’” says Dr. Scott. “When large groups of people are protected from a virus, we tend to see fewer infections among those who aren’t able to be vaccinated.”
Talk to your doctor if you have questions about the MMR vaccine or other vaccinations.