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Dr Karen Martin
Reviewed by Dr Karen MartinReviewed on 19.10.2023 | 3 minutes read

The paromyxovirus virus causes the viral infection known as mumps which is very contagious, and considered to be a disease of childhood, although the number of cases has been significantly reduced since a vaccine became available. This is given as the MMR vaccine in the US, a combined vaccine given in several doses in early childhood protecting against measles, mumps, and rubella. Mumps is therefore now most common in children who have not received the MMR vaccine as having the vaccine reduces the risk of getting mumps by around 85%.

Just like a virus causing colds and flu, mumps is easily spread from infected saliva or mucus in the mouth, nose, or throat. It can be inhaled or picked up from contaminated surfaces and transferred to the mouth or nose.

The most common symptom of mumps is a swelling of the salivary gland in front of the ear, usually affecting just one side of the face, and giving a characteristic hamster appearance known as parotitis. These swollen glands usually last for 5-8 days before settling down.

A few days before the swelling appears, people can also experience high fevers, headaches and muscle aches. For this reason, people are most infectious a few days before the symptoms develop and for a few days after. About a quarter of people with mumps experience no symptoms and most children with mumps are back to normal after 10 days.

How can I stop the spread of mumps?

If you are unwell with mumps, the best way to stop the spread is by good hygiene: regular and thorough washing of your hands, disposing of used tissues after coughing or sneezing, and avoiding contact with others for 5 days after your symptoms begin.

Cases of mumps have increased in recent years. People are most at risk of mumps if they haven't received the MMR vaccine. Young adults between the ages of 17 to 34 who haven't received the completed vaccine schedule are most at risk.

As an adult, it's important to check that you received your full vaccination schedule – you can ask your parent or check on your doctor's records. If you missed one or even all of the doses, it's not too late to catch up and get protected. Speak to your doctor or practice nurse about getting vaccinated.

Healthwords pharmacists' top tips

Mumps can sometimes be painful and make it difficult to eat and swallow. Therefore, taking simple painkillers like acetaminophen or ibuprofen may help alleviate your symptoms.

You can also use a cool compress on your glands to reduce any swelling or pain.

Does mumps cause other symptoms?

Mumps can cause swelling of the testicles in men, a condition known as orchitis. The testicle may be warm, swollen, or painful and can be managed with simple painkillers.

Women may get a similar presentation in their ovaries, called oophoritis. This can cause lower tummy pain, nausea or vomiting, and fevers.

Mumps can lead to viral meningitis, with flu-like symptoms, headaches, and neck stiffness. These symptoms usually improve after 14 days, and the risk of serious complications is low, unlike bacterial meningitis, which is an emergency.

Pancreatitis is a risk, causing inflammation of the pancreas. It gives a sharp pain in the upper center of the tummy, just below the breast bone, and can make you feel very sick.

When should I see my doctor?

If you think you or your child may have mumps, it's important to consult with your doctor for a diagnosis and to manage any complications. Mumps can usually be diagnosed by the symptoms but this needs a formal diagnosis. Your doctor has to notify cases of mumps to the state or local health department so they can monitor any outbreaks.

Mumps is a very contagious disease, so while you are unwell, you should reduce your contact with other people, for at least 5 days after your symptoms began. We would advise you to stay home from school and work, and not socialize with others. You are not fit for work.

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This article has been written by UK-based doctors and pharmacists, so some advice may not apply to US users and some suggested treatments may not be available. For more information, please see our T&Cs.
Dr Karen Martin
Reviewed by Dr Karen Martin
Reviewed on 19.10.2023
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