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What are mumps?

Mumps (or “the mumps”) is the more common name for parotitis (say: “pare-oh-TIE-tiss”). It is a viral infection that causes your parotid glands to swell. Your parotid glands are located between your ear and jaw. These glands make the saliva (spit) that helps you chew and swallow food. In serious cases, mumps can affect other organs. Mumps is most common in children 2 to 12 years of age who haven’t received the mumps vaccine, but you can catch it at any age.


What are the symptoms of mumps?

The most noticeable symptom of mumps is facial swelling, or “chipmunk cheeks,” caused by the swollen salivary glands. This swelling can be very painful, and is sometimes the only symptom. The swelling usually occurs on the second day of illness and lasts from 5 to 7 days. Many people also experience:

  • Face pain
  • Fever as high as 103°F to 104°F starting after the first few days and lasting for 2 to 3 days
  • Chills
  • Lack of appetite
  • Headache
  • Sore throat
  • Swelling of the temples or jaw

When should I see a doctor?

There is no medicine to treat mumps. It usually goes away on its own within 2 weeks. Because it is a viral infection, antibiotics cannot treat mumps.

Rarely, mumps can spread to other areas of the body, which may lead to other serious conditions. It can cause swelling of the testicles, the ovaries, the pancreas and the brain. It can also lead to hearing loss and meningitis (infection of membranes that cover the brain and spinal cord). Mumps can also cause miscarriage in pregnant women. Call your doctor if you notice:

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

Women who are pregnant and may have been exposed to mumps should call the doctor, even if they don’t show any symptoms.

If seizures occur, seek emergency medical care.

Causes & Risk Factors

What causes mumps?

Mumps is caused by a virus that is spread by infected saliva. This means the virus can spread very much like the common cold. For example, if an infected person sneezes near you or you touch something that an infected person has touched, and you have not been vaccinated, you may get the mumps. Normally, you won’t get sick until 12 to 24 days after being exposed to the virus. These 12 to 24 days are called the incubation period.


How are mumps treated?

If you or your child has mumps, the only thing to do is let the infection run its course. In the meantime, you can take some steps to relieve discomfort:

  • Place ice or heat packs on swollen cheeks.
  • Take acetaminophen (brand name: Tylenol) for pain or ibuprofen (brand names: Advil, Motrin) for pain and swelling. Never give aspirin to children or teenagers 18 years of age or younger because of the risk of Reye’s syndrome. Reye’s syndrome is a serious illness that can lead to death.
  • Drink plenty of fluids to stay hydrated.
  • 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.
  • If the testicles are swollen, support the scrotum with an athletic supporter. Ice packs may help reduce pain. Long-term problems, such as sterility (not being able to have children), are very rare.
  • Try to avoid public places and close contact for at least 5 days after symptoms appear. This is the period of time during which you are the most contagious.

Usually, people who have the mumps once become immune to it for life and can’t get it again.


Can mumps be prevented?

Yes. The measles, mumps and rubella (MMR) vaccine prevents the mumps in 80% to 90% of people. Two doses are more effective than one. Thanks to this vaccine, very few people get the mumps in the United States anymore. However, outbreaks can still occur in locations where vaccination rates are low.

The MMR vaccine is usually given to infants 12 to 15 months of age. Children often are given the vaccine between ages 4 to 6 or between ages 11 to 12 if they haven’t yet received it. However, it is never too late to be vaccinated. If you work in a public setting or in the health care field, you should get vaccinated if you haven’t already. Talk to your doctor if you think you may need to be vaccinated.

Questions to Ask Your Doctor

  • What can I do to make my child more comfortable?
  • How long will I be contagious?
  • How long should I keep my child home from school?
  • Am I at risk for any complications?
  • Will mumps make me sterile?
  • How soon should I have my child vaccinated against mumps?
  • Should I isolate my child from the rest of the family until he/she is no longer contagious?
  • If I feel worse, when should I call my doctor?
  • If I haven’t been vaccinated, should I be?