What Is Mumps?

Mumps is an infection caused by a virus. It can infect many parts of the body, but is best known for causing swelling of the parotid glands. These glands, which make saliva (spit), are in front of the ear, around the jaw.

Mumps used to be a common childhood illness in the United States, especially in kids 5 to 9 years old. It's much rarer now, thanks to the mumps vaccine.

What Are the Signs & Symptoms of Mumps?

Many kids have no symptoms, or very mild symptoms that feel like a cold. Those who do get symptoms might:

  • have a fever
  • have a headache
  • lose their appetite
  • feel tired, achy, and generally unwell

Within a couple days, the parotid glands can swell and get painful. This makes the cheeks look puffy. The pain gets worse when the child swallows, talks, chews, or drinks acidic juices (like orange juice). One or both parotid glands can swell. Sometimes one swells a few days before the other.

Rarely, someone might get:

Is Mumps Contagious?

Mumps is contagious. It spreads in tiny drops of fluid when someone with the virus sneezes, coughs, talks, or laughs. Contact with objects they use — like dirty tissues, straws, or drinking glasses — also can pass the virus. If they don't wash their hands, any surface they touch can spread mumps to others who touch it.

Someone with mumps is most contagious from 2 days before symptoms start to 5 days after they end. Anyone who is infected can pass the disease, even if they don't have symptoms.

Who Gets Mumps?

Mumps happens most often in school-age kids and college students. Outbreaks are rare, but can happen. An outbreak is when many people from one area come down with the same disease. Experts are looking into why outbreaks still happen and ways to prevent them.

Most people who get mumps never get it again.

How Is Mumps Diagnosed?

Call the doctor if your child has any mumps symptoms or has been around someone with mumps. The doctor might give you special instructions before you go to the office to protect other patients from the virus.

The doctor will do an exam, ask about symptoms, and check to see if your child got the mumps vaccine. Doctors sometimes send a saliva sample or blood sample for testing.

How Is Mumps Treated?

There's no specific medical treatment for mumps. To help manage symptoms:

  • Give your child plenty of fluids and soft foods that are easy to chew. Don't give tart or acidic fruit juices (like orange juice, grapefruit juice, or lemonade) that can make parotid gland pain worse.
  • Give medicine to bring down fever or ease pain, such as acetaminophen or ibuprofen, if your child is uncomfortable. Never give aspirin to a child who has a viral illness, as such use is linked to Reye syndrome.
  • Soothe swollen parotid glands with either warm or cool compresses (whichever feels better).
  • Help your child get plenty of rest.
  • Kids with mumps should stay home for 5 days from the start of parotid gland swelling. Ask your doctor about when your child can return to school or childcare.

Mumps is caused by a virus, so it can't be treated with antibiotics. Antibiotics work only against bacteria.

How Long Does Mumps Last?

Most children with mumps recover fully in about 2 weeks.

Can Mumps Be Prevented?

The best way to protect your kids is to make sure they're immunized against mumps.

For most kids, mumps protection is part of the measles-mumps-rubella vaccine (MMR) or measles-mumps-rubella-varicella vaccine (MMRV). They get these when they're 12–15 months old and again when they're 4–6 years old.

Sometimes people who have been vaccinated still get mumps. But their symptoms will be much milder than if they had not gotten the vaccine.

During a mumps outbreak, doctors may recommend more shots of the MMR vaccine for some people who are more likely to get mumps. Your doctor will have the most current information.

When Should I Call the Doctor?

Mumps can sometimes cause rare but severe problems. Call the doctor right away if your child has mumps and:

  • gets a severe headache
  • has a stiff neck
  • has seizures
  • is very drowsy
  • has changes in consciousness (passes out)

Watch for belly 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.

What Else Should I Know?

Other viral infections can cause inflamed parotid glands, such as the flu or coxsackievirus, which are much more common than mumps. Some bacterial infections also can cause it. Rarely, a blockage in the parotid gland (from a salivary stone, which is like a kidney stone) can cause painful swelling.

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Note: All information is for educational purposes only. For specific medical advice, diagnoses, and treatment, consult your doctor. © 1995-2021 KidsHealth®. All rights reserved. Images provided by The Nemours Foundation, iStock, Getty Images, Veer, Shutterstock, and Clipart.com.