What are mumps?

Mumps is a virus. It causes the glands around your neck (between your ear and jaw) to swell. These glands make the saliva (spit) that helps you chew and swallow food. Mumps is most common in children between 2 to 12 years old who didn’t get the mumps vaccine. You can get mumps as an adult if you did not get the vaccine. Some people call the virus “the mumps.”

Symptoms of mumps

The most noticeable symptom is swelling in the face. Some people refer to this as “chipmunk cheeks.” Swelling can last five to seven days. The other noticeable symptom is neck pain in the area between your ear and jaw. Other symptoms include:

  • A high fever (103°F to 104°F) that lasts two to three days
  • Chills
  • Loss of appetite
  • Headache
  • Sore throat
  • Swelling of the temples

Mild symptoms usually disappear within two weeks.

In serious cases, mumps can affect your organs. This includes testicles, ovaries, the pancreas and the brain. It also can lead to miscarriage, hearing loss and meningitis. Meningitis is an infection that affects the lining of your brain and spinal cord. Call your doctor is you have more severe symptoms. This would include:

  • Severe headache
  • Stiff neck
  • Eye redness
  • Drowsiness
  • Stomach pain
  • Vomiting
  • Testicle pain or lump
  • Seizures

If you are pregnant and have been exposed to someone with mumps, see your doctor. You should see your doctor even if you are symptom-free.

What causes mumps?

Mumps is caused by a virus. It is spread by infected saliva. This means it can spread through sneezing, coughing or sharing cups and utensils with an infected person. You cannot get the virus if you’ve been vaccinated for mumps. If you get the virus, symptoms usually appear 12 to 24 days after you’ve been exposed. Your doctor will call this the incubation period.

How are mumps diagnosed?

Your doctor will ask you questions about your symptoms and do a physical exam. Your doctor also may do a throat culture or blood test. A throat culture involves swabbing the back of your throat.

Can mumps be prevented or avoided?

The mumps can be prevented with a vaccine. The vaccine is called the measles, mumps and rubella (MMR) vaccine. It can be given at any age. However, it is usually given to infants 12 to 15 months old. It prevents the mumps in 80 to 90% of people. Two doses are required to be effective. Thanks to this vaccine, very few people get the mumps in the U.S. anymore. Outbreaks can still occur in locations where vaccination rates are low.

If you work in a public setting or in the health care field, you should get vaccinated if you haven’t already.

Mumps treatment

There is no medicine to treat mumps. It usually goes away on its own within two weeks. Because it is a viral infection, antibiotics do not work. If you or your child has mumps, you can relieve the discomfort:

  • Place ice or heat packs on swollen cheeks.
  • Take acetaminophen for pain. Take ibuprofen for pain and swelling. Never give aspirin to children or teenagers 18 old or younger. This increases the risk of Reye’s syndrome. Reye’s syndrome is a serious illness that can lead to death.
  • Drink lots of fluids.
  • Eat soft foods that don’t require much chewing.
  • Avoid acidic foods or foods that make your mouth water, such as citrus fruits.
  • Gargle with warm salt water several times a day.
  • Try popsicles to soothe your throat.
  • For swollen testicles, support the scrotum with an athletic supporter. Ice packs may reduce pain. Sterility (not being able to have children) is a very rare complication.
  • Avoid public places and close contact for at least five days after symptoms appear. This is when you are the most contagious.

People who have the mumps once become immune to it for life. This means you can’t get it again.

Living with mumps

Living with mumps involves living with mild symptoms for two weeks. This will include pain, swelling, loss of appetite, headache, sore throat, fever and chills. The frustrating part of living with mumps is not being able to get out and see people. Because mumps is contagious, you must avoid all contact as much as possible. Long-term complications are rare. This would include organ damage.

Questions to ask your doctor

  • Can I expose spread mumps before I get symptoms?
  • Can I pass mumps onto my unborn child?
  • Am I at risk for any complications?
  • Is the mumps vaccine safe for the elderly or people who have weakened immune systems?


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