Mumps: Symptoms, Treatments, and Complications


Mumps is a contagious disease caused by a virus known as a paramyxovirus. Related paramyxoviruses cause measles and other respiratory illnesses.

If no immunization shot is given, mumps usually occurs in childhood. Although mumps is usually a mild disease, serious complications can occur. Recent outbreaks of mumps on college campuses have been reported.


How is mumps spread?

Once the mumps virus is in the upper respiratory tract, it spreads from the infected person to others through contact with saliva or respiratory secretions (for example, mucus). Mumps may also be contracted by coming into contact with objects such as toys or drinking cups that have been infected by the sick person.

Anyone who is diagnosed with mumps should be excluded from school or childcare, and should minimize contact with others during the contagious period, which is 9 days after his or her glands begin to swell.

What are the symptoms of mumps?

Symptoms of mumps are often mild. In fact, many people who get mumps do not even know that they are infected.

Symptoms do not appear right away. Instead, they usually show up from 12 to 25 days after infection. The more usual range is 16-18 days.

The classic sign of mumps is the painful swelling of the salivary glands just below the ear. This swelling, known as parotitis, can occur on one or both sides of the face. However, fewer than half of those who become infected with the mumps virus have this symptom.

For those who do have symptoms, these may include:

For those who have parotitis, these other symptoms will show up and last a few days before the person has any swelling. A common complication in older boys is orchitis, or inflammation of the testicles. This rarely results in sterility.

How is mumps diagnosed?

The doctor can usually diagnose mumps based on the swollen salivary glands. If the glands are not swollen and the doctor suspects mumps based on other symptoms, he or she will perform a virus culture. A culture is done by swabbing the inside of the cheek or throat. The swab collects mucus and cells and is sent to a lab to be tested for the mumps virus. It is important to remember than many viruses other than mumps can cause swelling of the salivary glands.

How is mumps treated?

There is no treatment for mumps; the disease must be allowed to run its course. Treatment focuses on treating symptoms to make the person as comfortable as possible. These treatment steps should be the following:

  • Drink plenty of fluids.
  • If the glands are swollen and causing discomfort, ice or heat packs can help ease the pain.
  • Non-aspirin medications such acetaminophen and ibuprofen can be used to bring a fever under control and help with pain from swollen glands.

Do not give your child aspirin. Children with viruses such as mumps who take aspirin can develop Reye’s Syndrome, a dangerous disease that causes liver failure, swelling of the brain, and even death.

Mumps is usually a mild disease. Serious complications, including meningitisencephalitis, or permanent deafness, can occur, though this usually happens in adolescent and adult patients.

Call your child’s pediatrician right away if your child has a high fever, stiff neck, severe headaches, or signs of confusion.

Can mumps be prevented?

Mumps is a highly preventable disease because of the effectiveness of the MMR (mumps, measles, and rubella) vaccine. Children are usually vaccinated against mumps between 12 and 15 months of age and then again between the ages of 4 and 6.

Mumps is considered a rare disease, with only a few hundred cases each year in the United States. Still, outbreaks occur in the United States on a regular basis, especially in places where there is close human contact, such as schools and dormitories. Therefore, it is important that your child be vaccinated to reduce his or her risk of contracting the disease.

How safe is the MMR vaccine?

The MMR vaccine is very safe and effective. A single dose of the vaccine provides long-lasting immunity. The most common adverse events following the MMR vaccine are pain where the vaccine is given, fever, a mild rash, and swollen glands in the cheeks or neck.

Despite concern in the popular press and among some parents, many carefully performed scientific studies have found no link between the MMR vaccine and autism. A concern of some parents is whether the MMR vaccine contains thimerosal, a mercury-based preservative used in some vaccines distributed in multi-dose vials. The MMR vaccines do not and never did contain thimerosal.

Very rarely, a child may have an allergic reaction to the MMR vaccine. Call your doctor immediately if your child has difficulty breathing, fatigue, loss of color, or wheezing after receiving the vaccine.

Children with minor illnesses, such as upper respiratory tract infections, may be immunized. Fever is not a contraindication to immunization, but if the child has a more serious illness, your pediatrician may advise delaying the vaccine until your child has recovered. Tell your child’s pediatrician if your child:

  • Has had seizures in the past or has a parent or sibling who have suffered seizures.
  • Is currently taking medications that may affect his or her immune system.
  • Has a blood disorder.
  • Had a bad reaction to an earlier MMR dose or vaccine.

What is the outlook for children who get mumps?

When mumps occurs in a child, most children recover fully within a few weeks. Your child can return to school when symptoms have improved and it has been about a week since the swelling started.

When mumps occurs among adults, the illness is more likely to be severe. Pregnant women who get mumps have a higher rate of spontaneous abortion.

Once a child has had mumps, it is very unlikely that he or she will get them again in his or her lifetime. The best way to ensure that your child is protected against mumps, however, is to make sure that your child's immunizations are up to date.

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