What is mumps?
Mumps is a contagious disease caused by the mumps virus, which belongs to a group of viruses known as paramyxoviruses. The illness starts with mild symptoms such as headache, fever and fatigue. But then it typically leads to severe swelling in certain salivary glands (parotitis) that causes puffy cheeks and a tender, swollen jaw.
Mumps used to be a very common childhood disease. After the mumps vaccine became available in 1967, the number of cases reduced significantly. However, mumps outbreaks still occur, especially among people who have prolonged close contact, such as on college campuses.
You can protect your child by having them get the measles-mumps-rubella (MMR) vaccine. Although mumps is usually a mild disease, serious complications can occur.
Who does mumps affect?
Mumps most commonly affects children between the ages of 2 to 12 who haven’t received the mumps vaccine. However, adolescents and adults can get mumps despite being vaccinated against it. This occurs because there’s waning immunity of the vaccine after several years. Still, the best way to protect against mumps infection is to be fully vaccinated.
Symptoms and Causes
What are the symptoms of mumps?
The first mumps symptoms are often mild. Many people have no symptoms and don’t know they’re infected. Symptoms also don’t appear right away. The incubation period (the time between infection and illness) ranges from seven to 25 days.
Mild mumps symptoms may include:
- Muscle aches.
- Loss of appetite.
A few days later, painful swelling of your parotid glands may occur. Your parotid glands are salivary glands located between your ears and jaw. The swelling, known as parotitis, can occur on one or both sides of your face. This classic sign of mumps looks like “chipmunk cheeks” because your cheeks puff up and your jaw swells. Parotitis occurs in more than 70% of mumps cases.
It’s important to remember that many different viruses and bacteria can cause parotitis. So it doesn’t always mean infection by the mumps virus.
Rarely, mumps can affect your organs, including your brain, pancreas, testicles or ovaries. This usually only occurs in adolescents and adults, but call your child’s healthcare provider right away if they develop any of the following severe symptoms:
- High fever.
- Stiff neck.
- Severe headache.
- Stomach pain.
What causes mumps?
The mumps virus, which is a type of paramyxovirus, causes mumps. The virus spreads from person to person through direct contact with infected saliva or through respiratory droplets from the infected person’s nose, mouth or throat. The infected person can spread the mumps virus by:
- Sneezing, coughing or talking.
- Sharing objects containing infected saliva, such as toys, cups and utensils.
- Playing sports, dancing, kissing or participating in other activities involving close contact with others.
Some groups of people are at a higher risk of getting mumps. These groups include:
- People with weakened immune systems.
- People who travel internationally.
- People who aren’t vaccinated against the virus.
- People living in close quarters, such as college campuses
Is mumps contagious?
Yes, mumps is a very contagious viral infection. If your child has mumps, they’re contagious from a few days before their glands swell to up to five days after the swelling began. Therefore, your child should minimize contact with others. They shouldn’t go to school or childcare. Up to one-third of people with mumps don’t have any symptoms, but they can still be contagious.
Diagnosis and Tests
How is mumps diagnosed?
Your child’s healthcare provider will ask questions about your child’s symptoms and perform a physical examination. They may be able to diagnose mumps based on their telltale swollen salivary glands. Your child’s provider may request specific tests to diagnose the condition.
What tests will be done to diagnose mumps?
Your child’s healthcare provider may request a polymerase chain reaction (PCR) test to diagnose mumps. They’ll swab the inside of your child’s cheek or throat to collect a sample of their mucus. They’ll send the sample to a lab, where a pathologist will examine it and look for the mumps virus. Your child’s provider may also request a blood test to help make the diagnosis of mumps or to rule out other conditions and viruses that can cause parotitis.
Management and Treatment
How is mumps treated?
There’s no specific treatment for mumps. The disease must run its course and usually goes away on its own within a couple of weeks. Mumps treatment focuses on alleviating your child’s symptoms to make them as comfortable as possible. The following steps can help manage symptoms:
- Drink plenty of fluids.
- Gargle warm salt water.
- Eat soft, easy-to-chew foods.
- Avoid acidic foods that make your mouth water.
- Suck on an ice pop to soothe a sore throat.
- Place ice or heat packs on swollen glands.
- Take non-aspirin medications such as acetaminophen and ibuprofen to reduce fever and help with pain.
Don’t 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 their brain and even death.
Can mumps be prevented?
Mumps is a highly preventable disease because of the effectiveness of the mumps vaccine. Healthcare providers usually give the vaccine for mumps as part of a combination vaccine that protects against measles, mumps and rubella.
Children usually receive two doses of the measles-mumps-rubella (MMR) vaccine as part of the childhood immunization schedule. They receive the first dose between 12 and 15 months of age and a second dose 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 U.S. regularly, especially in places where there’s close human contact, such as schools and dormitories. Therefore, it’s important that your child be vaccinated to reduce their risk of contracting the disease.
Recent outbreaks of mumps have occurred on college campuses despite high rates of vaccination against the infection. This occurs because of waning immunity after vaccination. Sometimes public health authorities will recommend a third dose of the mumps vaccine for people who are part of an outbreak situation.
How safe is the MMR vaccine?
The MMR vaccine is very safe and effective. It prevents mumps in up to 90% of people. Most children don’t experience any side effects from the vaccine. Any side effects that do occur are mild. The mumps vaccine may cause a rash, fever or slight pain at the injection site.
Very rarely, a child may have an allergic reaction to the MMR vaccine. Call your child’s healthcare provider immediately if they have difficulty breathing, fatigue, loss of color or wheezing after receiving the vaccine.
Children with minor illnesses (such as upper respiratory tract infections) or symptoms (such as fever) may receive the vaccine. However, if your child has a more serious illness, their 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 has had seizures.
- Is currently taking medications that may affect their immune system.
- Has a blood disorder.
- Had a bad reaction to an earlier MMR dose or vaccine.
Outlook / Prognosis
How long does mumps last?
Most children recover fully from mumps within a few weeks. Your child can return to school when symptoms have improved and it’s been about a week since swelling started.
Can you get mumps twice?
Once a child has had mumps, it’s very unlikely that they’ll get it again in their lifetime. The best way to ensure that your child is protected against mumps, however, is to make sure that their immunizations are up to date.
What complications can mumps cause?
While mumps is typically a mild disease, it can cause serious complications. These complications may include:
- Arthritis: Inflammation of your child’s joints.
- Deafness: Permanent hearing loss.
- Encephalitis: Inflammation of your child’s brain.
- Meningitis: Inflammation of the tissue covering your child’s brain and spinal cord.
- Oophoritis: Inflammation of your child’s ovaries.
- Orchitis: Inflammation of your child’s testicles.
- Pancreatitis: Inflammation of your child’s pancreas.
- Thyroiditis: Inflammation of your child’s thyroid gland.
Mumps during pregnancy is usually harmless (benign) but may very rarely lead to miscarriage, premature birth, low birth weight, birth defects or fetal death. If you’re pregnant and have been exposed to mumps, see your healthcare provider right away.
How do I take care of my child if they have mumps?
Your child may have mild symptoms for two to three weeks. Since the condition is contagious, your child must avoid contact with other people as much as possible. They shouldn’t go to school or participate in activities with friends.
What questions should I ask my child’s healthcare provider?
It may be helpful to ask your child’s provider the following questions about mumps:
- Can my child spread mumps before they have symptoms?
- Is my child at risk for any complications?
- Is the mumps vaccine safe?
- What can I do to make my child feel better?
A note from Cleveland Clinic
Mumps is usually a mild illness. If your child is exposed to the virus, they may have minor symptoms that resemble a cold. Often, they’ll develop painful swelling in their salivary glands a few days later. Getting vaccinated greatly reduces your child’s risk of getting mumps and spreading it to others. It also reduces their chance of developing any serious complications that can occur due to the disease.
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