Mumps is a viral infection that primarily affects saliva-producing (salivary) glands that are located near your ears. Mumps can cause swelling in one or both of these glands.
Mumps was common in the United States until mumps vaccination became routine. Since then, the number of cases has dropped dramatically.
However, mumps outbreaks still occur in the United States, and the number of cases has crept up in recent years. These outbreaks generally affect people who aren't vaccinated, and occur in close-contact settings such as schools or college campuses.
Complications of mumps, such as hearing loss, are potentially serious but rare. There's no specific treatment for mumps.
Some people infected with the mumps virus have either no signs or symptoms or very mild ones. When signs and symptoms do develop, they usually appear about two to three weeks after exposure to the virus.
The primary sign of mumps is swollen salivary glands that cause the cheeks to puff out. Other signs and symptoms may include:
- Pain in the swollen salivary glands on one or both sides of your face
- Pain while chewing or swallowing
- Muscle aches
- Weakness and fatigue
- Loss of appetite
When to see a doctor
See your doctor if you or your child has signs and symptoms of mumps. Mumps is highly contagious for about nine days after symptoms appear. Tell your doctor's office before you go in that you suspect mumps so arrangements can be made to avoid spreading the virus to others in the waiting room.
In the meantime:
- Rest as much as possible
- Try to ease symptoms with cold compresses and over-the-counter pain relievers such as ibuprofen (Advil, Motrin IB, others) and acetaminophen (Tylenol, others)
Mumps has become uncommon, so it's possible that another condition is causing your signs and symptoms. Swollen salivary glands and a fever could indicate:
- A blocked salivary gland
- A different viral infection
Mumps is caused by a virus that spreads easily from person to person through infected saliva. If you're not immune, you can contract mumps by breathing in saliva droplets from an infected person who has just sneezed or coughed. You can also contract mumps from sharing utensils or cups with someone who has mumps.
Complications of mumps are rare, but some are potentially serious.
Most mumps complications involve inflammation and swelling in some part of the body, such as:
- Testicles. This condition, known as orchitis, causes one or both testicles to swell in males who've reached puberty. Orchitis is painful, but it rarely leads to the inability to father a child (sterility).
- Brain. Viral infections such as mumps can lead to inflammation of the brain (encephalitis). Encephalitis can cause neurological problems and become life-threatening.
- Membranes and fluid around the brain and spinal cord. This condition, known as meningitis, can occur if the mumps virus spreads through your bloodstream to infect your central nervous system.
- Pancreas. The signs and symptoms of this condition, known as pancreatitis, include pain in the upper abdomen, nausea and vomiting.
Other complications of mumps include:
- Hearing loss. Hearing loss can occur in one or both ears. Although rare, the hearing loss is sometimes permanent.
- Heart problems. Rarely, mumps has been associated with abnormal heartbeat and diseases of the heart muscle.
- Miscarriage. Contracting mumps while you're pregnant, especially early in your pregnancy, may lead to miscarriage.
The best way to prevent mumps is to be vaccinated against the disease. Most people have immunity to mumps once they're fully vaccinated.
The mumps vaccine is usually given as a combined measles-mumps-rubella (MMR) inoculation, which contains the safest and most effective form of each vaccine. Two doses of the MMR vaccine are recommended before a child enters school. Those vaccines should be given when the child is:
- Between the ages of 12 and 15 months
- Between the ages of 4 and 6 years
College students, international travelers and health care workers in particular are encouraged to make sure they've had two doses of the MMR vaccine. A single dose is not completely effective at preventing mumps.
A third dose of vaccine isn't routinely recommended. But your doctor might recommend a third dose if you are in an area that is experiencing an outbreak. A study of a recent mumps outbreak on a college campus showed that students who received a third dose of MMR vaccine had a much lower risk of contracting the disease.
Those who don't need the MMR vaccine
You don't need a vaccination if you:
- Had two doses of the MMR vaccine after 12 months of age
- Had one dose of MMR after 12 months of age and you're a preschool child or an adult who isn't at high risk of measles or mumps exposure
- Have blood tests that demonstrate your immunity to measles, mumps and rubella
- Were born before 1957 — most people in that age group were likely infected by the virus naturally and have immunity
Also, the vaccine isn't recommended for:
- People who have had a life-threatening allergic reaction to the antibiotic neomycin or any other component of the MMR vaccine
- Pregnant women or women who plan to get pregnant within the next four weeks
- People with severely compromised immune systems
Those who should get the MMR vaccine
You should get vaccinated if you don't fit the criteria listed above and if you:
- Are a nonpregnant woman of childbearing age
- Attend college or another postsecondary school
- Work in a hospital, medical facility, child care center or school
- Plan to travel overseas or take a cruise
Those who should wait to get the MMR vaccine
Consider waiting if:
- You're moderately or severely ill. Wait until you recover.
- You're pregnant. Wait until after you give birth.
Those who should check with their doctors
Talk to your doctor before getting vaccinated for mumps if you:
- Have cancer
- Have a blood disorder
- Have a disease that affects your immune system, such as HIV/AIDS
- Are being treated with drugs, such as steroids, that affect your immune system
- Have received another vaccine within the past four weeks
Side effects of the vaccine
The MMR vaccine is very safe and effective. Getting the MMR vaccine is much safer than getting mumps.
Most people experience no side effects from the vaccine. Some people experience a mild fever or rash or achy joints for a short time.
Rarely, children who get the MMR vaccine might experience a seizure caused by fever. But these seizures haven't been associated with any long-term problems.
Extensive reports — from the American Academy of Pediatrics, the Institute of Medicine and the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention — conclude that there's no link between the MMR vaccine and autism.
If you or your child has signs or symptoms of mumps, the doctor is likely to:
- Ask whether you or your child has been vaccinated against mumps and whether you might have been exposed to the virus
- Recommend a blood test to check for evidence of the mumps virus
Mumps is caused by a virus, so antibiotics aren't effective. But most children and adults recover from an uncomplicated case of mumps within a few weeks.
People with mumps are generally no longer contagious and can safely return to work or school about five days after the appearance of signs and symptoms.
Rest is the best treatment. There's little your doctor can do to speed recovery.
But you can take some steps to ease pain and discomfort and keep others from becoming infected. Try to:
- Isolate yourself or your child to prevent spreading the disease to others. Someone with mumps may be contagious up to five days after the onset of signs and symptoms.
- Take over-the-counter pain relievers such as acetaminophen (Tylenol, others) or a nonsteroidal anti-inflammatory drug such as ibuprofen (Advil, Motrin IB, others) to ease symptoms.
- Use a warm or cold compress to ease the pain of swollen glands.
- Wear an athletic supporter and use cold compresses to ease the pain of tender testicles.
- Avoid foods that require lots of chewing. Try broth-based soups or soft foods, such as mashed potatoes or oatmeal.
- Avoid sour foods, such as citrus fruits or juices, which stimulate saliva production.
- Drink plenty of fluids.
If your child has mumps, watch for complications. Call your doctor if your child develops:
- Fever of 103 F (39 C) or greater
- Trouble eating or drinking
- Confusion or disorientation
- Abdominal pain
- In boys, pain and swelling of the testicles
What you can do
- Write down symptoms you or your child has had, and for how long.
- Try to remember if you or your child has been exposed to someone with signs and symptoms of mumps within the last few weeks.
- Make a list of all medications, vitamins or supplements that your or your child takes.
- Write down key medical information, including other diagnosed conditions.
- Write down key personal information, including any recent changes or stressors in your life.
- Write down questions to ask your doctor.
Questions to ask your doctor
- What's the most likely cause of these signs and symptoms?
- What treatment approach do you recommend?
- How soon should symptoms improve?
- Are there are home remedies or self-care steps that could help relieve symptoms?
- Am I or is my child contagious? For how long?
- What steps should we take to reduce the risk of infecting others?
In addition to the questions that you've prepared to ask your doctor, don't hesitate to ask questions during your appointment.
What to expect from your doctor
Your doctor is likely to ask you a number of questions, including:
- What signs and symptoms have you noticed? When did you first notice them? Have they worsened over time?
- Do symptoms include abdominal pain or, in males, testicular pain?
- Has anyone else you know had signs and symptoms common to mumps within the last few weeks?
- Are you and your child current on your vaccinations?
- Are you or your child currently being treated or have you recently been treated for any other medical conditions?
- What medications are you or your child currently taking, including prescription and over-the-counter drugs as well as vitamins and supplements?
- Is your child in school or child care?
- Are you pregnant or breast-feeding?