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What Is Mumps?

Mumps is a disease caused by a virus. It usually spreads through saliva (spit). It can infect many parts of the body, especially the parotid salivary glands. These glands, which make saliva for the mouth, are toward the back of each cheek, in the area between the ear and jaw. Mumps can make these glands swollen and painful.

Who Gets Mumps?

Mumps was common until the mumps vaccine came out in 1967. Now, outbreaks are rare but can happen.

Most cases of mumps happen in kids ages 5–14. But the rate among young adults has increased over the last two decades.

It's very unusual for someone to get mumps more than once. Most people have lifelong protection after a first infection.

What Are the Signs & Symptoms of Mumps?

Cases of mumps may start with a fever of up to 103°F (39.4°C), plus a headache and loss of appetite.

Swollen, painful parotid glands are the hallmark sign of mumps — a child might look like a hamster with food in its cheeks. The glands get more swollen and painful for a few days. The pain gets worse when the child swallows, talks, chews, or drinks acidic juices (like orange juice).parotid gland illustration

Both the left and right parotid glands may be affected, with one side swelling a few days before the other, or only one side may swell.

What Problems Can Mumps Cause?

Mumps can lead to inflammation and swelling of the brain and other organs, although this is not common. Encephalitis (inflammation of the brain) and meningitis (inflammation of the lining of the brain and spinal cord) are both rare complications of mumps. Symptoms start in the first week after the parotid glands swell. They can include a high fever, stiff neck, headache, nausea and vomiting, drowsiness, and seizures.

Mumps in teenage and adult males can lead to orchitis, an inflammation of the testicles. Usually one testicle gets swollen and painful about 7–10 days after the parotids swell. In some cases, both testicles are involved. Other symptoms include a high fever, shaking chills, headache, nausea, vomiting, and abdominal pain (sometimes mistaken for appendicitis if the right testicle is affected).

After 3–7 days, testicular pain and swelling ease, usually at about the same time that the fever passes. Even if both testicles are involved, orchitis rarely causes sterility (being unable to have children).

Mumps also may affect the pancreas or, in females, the ovaries, causing pain and tenderness in parts of the abdomen.

In some cases, signs and symptoms are so mild that no one suspects a mumps infection. Doctors believe that about 1 in 3 people may have a mumps infection without symptoms.

Is Mumps Contagious?

Yes, the mumps virus is contagious. It spreads in tiny drops of fluid from the mouth and nose of someone who is infected through sneezing, coughing, or even laughing.

The virus can also spread through direct contact, such as picking up tissues or drinking from glasses used by an infected person.

People who have mumps are most contagious from 2 days before symptoms begin to 6 days after they end. It can spread from people who are infected but have no symptoms.

How Is Mumps Diagnosed?

Call the doctor if your child has any mumps symptoms or might have been exposed to somebody with mumps. The doctor who can confirm the diagnosis and work with you to watch your child for complications. The doctor will notify the health authorities who keep track of childhood immunization programs and mumps outbreaks.

How Is Mumps Treated?

There's no medical cure for mumps. Treatment involves managing symptoms (relieving pain, preventing dehydration, etc.) while the immune system works to clear the infection from the body.

When mumps involves the testicles, doctors may prescribe medicines for pain and swelling.

Because mumps is caused by a virus, it cannot be treated with antibiotics.

How Can I Help My Child?

At home, keep track of your child's temperature. You can use nonaspirin fever medicines — such as acetaminophen or ibuprofen — to bring down a fever. These will also help ease pain from swollen glands.

Do not give aspirin. Its use in children with viral illnesses is associated with Reye syndrome, which can lead to liver failure and death.

Serve a soft, bland diet that's easy to chew. Encourage your child to drink plenty of fluids. But don't give tart or acidic fruit juices (like orange juice, grapefruit juice, or lemonade) that make gland pain worse. Water, decaffeinated soft drinks, and tea are better choices.

A child with mumps doesn't need to stay in bed, but may play quietly. Ask your doctor about when your child can return to school.

How Long Does Mumps Last?

Children usually recover from mumps in about 10–12 days. It takes about 1 week for the swelling to disappear in each parotid gland. But both glands don't usually swell at the same time.

Can Mumps Be Prevented?

Mumps can be prevented by vaccination. This is given as part of the measles-mumps-rubella (MMR) immunization. Children are vaccinated at 12–15 months of age and get a second dose at 4-6 years of age.

As with all immunization schedules, important exceptions and special circumstances can apply. A child who will be traveling outside the United States, for example, should get the vaccine as early as 6 months of age.

College students and other young adults living in close quarters should be sure they've had both doses of the MMR vaccine.

During a measles outbreak, doctors may recommend additional shots of the MMR vaccine for children 1–4 years old. Your doctor will have the most current information.

When Should I Call the Doctor?

Mumps can affect the brain and its membranes. So call the doctor immediately if your child was diagnosed with mumps and has:

  • a stiff neck
  • convulsions (seizures)
  • extreme drowsiness
  • severe headache
  • changes in consciousness (passes out)

Watch for abdominal pain. It can be a sign of problems with the pancreas in either boys or girls or the ovaries in girls. In boys, watch for high fever with pain and swelling of the testicles.

Reviewed by: Raluca Papadopol, MD
Date Reviewed: 14-02-2016

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