Mumps is caused by a virus that is passed from one person to another through saliva, nasal secretions, and close personal contact.
The condition primarily affects the parotid glands. Parotid glands–also called salivary glands–are the organs responsible for producing saliva. There are three sets of salivary glands on each side of your face, located behind and below your ears. The hallmark symptom of mumps is swelling of the salivary glands.
Symptoms of mumps usually appear within two weeks of exposure to the virus. Flu-like symptoms may be the first to appear, including:
- body aches
- loss of appetite
- low-grade fever
A high fever (up to 103 °F) and swelling of the salivary glands follow over the next few days. The glands may not all swell at once. More commonly, they swell and become painful periodically. You are most contagious from the time you are exposed to the mumps virus until your parotid glands swell.
Most people who contract mumps show symptoms of the virus. However, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC), only 30 to 40 percent of mumps patients have swollen glands. Up to 20 percent of patients are completely asymptomatic (CDC).
Because mumps is a virus, it does not respond to antibiotics or other medications. However, you can treat the symptoms to make yourself more comfortable while you are sick. You can:
- rest when you feel weak or tired
- take over-the-counter pain relievers, such as acetaminophen and ibuprofen, to bring down your fever
- soothe swollen glands by applying ice packs
- drink plenty of fluids to avoid dehydration due to fever
- eat a soft diet of soup, yogurt, and other foods that are not hard to chew (chewing may be painful when your glands are swollen)
- avoid acidic foods and beverages that may cause more pain in your salivary glands
You can usually return to work or school about one week after you are diagnosed with mumps, if you feel up to it. By this point, you are no longer contagious. Mumps usually runs its course in a couple of weeks. Ten days into your illness, you should be feeling better.
Most people who get mumps cannot contract the disease a second time. Having had the virus once protects you against becoming infected again.
Complications from mumps are rare, but can be serious if left untreated. Mmps mostly affects the parotid glands. However, it can also cause inflammation in other areas of the body, including the brain and reproductive organs.
Orchitis is an inflammation of the testicles that may be caused by mumps. Manage orchitis pain by placing cold packs on the testicles several times a day. Your doctor may recommend prescription-strength painkillers if necessary. In rare cases, orchitis can cause sterility in males.
Females infected with mumps may experience swelling of the ovaries. The inflammation can be painful but does not harm a woman’s eggs. However, if a woman contracts mumps during pregnancy, she has a higher-than-normal risk of suffering a miscarriage.
Mumps may lead to meningitis or encephalitis, two potentially fatal conditions if left untreated. Meningitis is swelling of the membranes around your spinal cord and brain. Encephalitis is inflammation of the brain itself. Contact your doctor if you experience seizures, loss of consciousness, or severe headaches while you have mumps.
The mumps virus also leads to permanent hearing loss in about 5 out of every 10,000 cases. The virus damages the cochlea, one of the structures in your inner ear that facilitates hearing.
Mumps can be prevented through vaccination. Most infants and children receive a vaccine for measles, mumps, and rubella (MMR) at the same time. The first MMR shot is generally given between the ages of 12 and 15 months at a routine well-child visit. A second vaccination is required for school-aged children between 4 and 6 years old.
Adults who were born before 1957 and have not yet contracted mumps may wish to be vaccinated. Those who work in a high-risk environment, such as a hospital or school, should always be vaccinated against mumps.
However, patients who have a compromised immune system, who are allergic to gelatin or neomycin, or who are pregnant, should not receive the MMR vaccine.
Consult your family doctor about an immunization schedule for you and your children.