When you hear someone talk about mumps, you’re probably thinking it’s an old virus. It’s true, mumps used to be a common childhood illness decades ago, especially in kids aged 5 – 9, but is much rarer today thanks to the mumps vaccine.
However, outbreaks can and do still occur in this country — and the number of cases in school-age kids and college students has crept up in recent years.
“Mumps outbreaks are more likely to happen in close-contact settings like daycares and schools, and where children and adults are inadequately vaccinated,” said Dr. Emma Raizman, a pediatrician at Akron Children’s Hospital Pediatrics, Medina. “Having the recommended 2 doses of the MMR (measles, mumps, rubella) vaccine increases protection against mumps to about 90 percent, but even those fully vaccinated can get a milder case of mumps.”
Mumps is a viral infection that can cause swelling in a child’s saliva-producing glands, which are located behind the ears and around the jaw. The swelling can become painful, making it difficult for a child to swallow, talk, chew or drink.
Dr. Raizman sheds light on mumps, common symptoms and treatment because a better understanding of the condition can help you rest easy and get your children the care they need.
The virus spreads through droplets in the air — from coughing or sneezing — or sharing cups or utensils with someone who is infected. Mumps is most contagious from 2 days before symptoms start to 5 days after they end.
Anyone with mumps can pass the disease, even if they don’t have symptoms.
Typical symptoms for mumps include:
- Swollen, sometimes painful, salivary glands that cause one or both cheeks to puff out
- Fever and muscle aches
- Loss of appetite
“Mumps is uncommon, though,” said Dr. Raizman. “So it’s important to contact your child’s pediatrician if she’s experiencing symptoms of mumps. It’s possible that another condition, such as a blocked salivary gland or another virus, could be causing the problem.”
Diagnosis and treatment for mumps
Doctors can diagnose mumps through a physical exam and discussion of symptoms. Sometimes, a pediatrician will do a saliva or blood sample for testing.
There is no specific medical treatment for mumps, but you can manage your child’s symptoms. Most children with mumps fully recover in about 2 weeks.
You can help soothe your child’s swollen glands using either a warm or cold compress. Also, feed your child soft foods that are easy to chew. With swollen salivary glands, chewing and swallowing can be painful.
In addition, ibuprofen or acetaminophen (only in children over 6 months old) can make her more comfortable, and as with most illnesses, rest and plenty of fluids are recommended. Just be sure to stay away from acidic fruit juices, such as orange juice, because they stimulate saliva production and can make the pain worse.
In most cases, mumps can be treated at home with little-to-no complications. In rare circumstances, however, mumps can cause severe problems and can lead to meningitis, which causes inflammation around the brain and spinal cord, or encephalitis, which causes the brain to swell.
Call a pediatrician immediately or get medical attention if your child develops:
- A severe headache
- A stiff neck
- Extreme tiredness
- Has changes in consciousness, such as passing out
- Belly pain, which can be a sign of swelling in the pancreas or ovaries (in girls)
- Hearing loss, a rare, but serious complication
The best way to protect your children against mumps is to get them vaccinated. The MMR vaccine is typically given to kids when they’re 12 – 15 months old and again when they’re 4 – 6 years old.
“The MMR vaccine is very safe and effective,” said Dr. Raizman. “It’s much safer than getting mumps.”
Learn more about Akron Children’s COVID-19 response and resources, and how to stop the spread.