What Parents Need to Know About Mumps: Diagnosis, Treatment, and Prevention

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Most of us won’t have to worry about our kids getting mumps. Thanks to vaccines, mumps outbreaks are rare. Still, some children do get this contagious virus, and if you are a parent who's considering vaccination or dealing with a possible case, you likely have many questions. You might want to know the telltale signs of mumps, effective treatments, and the best steps for prevention.

Mumps is a respiratory virus that can cause fever, headache, exhaustion, and swelling of the salivary glands. Most infections are mild, but some cases can lead to severe complications. Learn how to recognize and deal with an infection as well as how to protect your family from mumps.

What Is Mumps?

Mumps is a viral infection spread by close contact with respiratory droplets produced by the nose and throat. Most mumps cases produce mild symptoms which may resemble the flu or a bad cold. In rare cases, mumps can lead to more severe complications, some of which are life-threatening.

In the past, mumps was an infection that most people would contract in childhood. That changed when kids began to be immunized against mumps in 1967. “Now, mumps is rare due to a vaccine against it that works very well,” says Beth Oller, MD, a family physician in Kansas.

Although rare, outbreaks can—and do—still happen. The majority of mumps outbreaks happen in school-age kids and college students.

What Are Symptoms of Mumps?

When you think of mumps, you might picture a person with abnormally puffy cheeks, and you wouldn’t be too far off. One of the telltale signs of mumps is swollen salivary glands. This condition is called parotitis because the salivary gland it affects is the parotid gland, which is in front and under the ear near the cheeks.

But cheek swelling typically isn't the first sign of mumps. “A mumps infection typically begins like many other viral illnesses with fever, headache, body aches, fatigue, and a decreased appetite,” says Norma Perez, MD, a pediatrician and Medical Director at AltaMed Health Services in Los Angeles, CA.

When to See a Doctor

If you suspect mumps, you should contact your doctor right away. They will likely want to see you for a formal diagnosis and to give you instructions for reducing the spread of the virus.

In rare cases, severe symptoms may develop. The most serious complications of mumps include encephalitis (brain inflammation) and meningitis (inflammation of the tissues that cover the brain and spinal cord). “Red flags are if your child complains of a severe headache or a stiff neck, has a seizure, or is very drowsy and difficult to arouse,” says Dr. Oller. “These could be a sign of inflammation to the brain and must be treated immediately.”

Mumps patients can also have inflammation in parts of their body, including the ovaries and testicles. “Severe pain or swelling of the testicles should be evaluated right away,” says Dr. Perez. Though rare, hearing loss can occur with mumps, too.

How to Diagnose Mumps

Your child's pediatrician can diagnose mumps. “Mumps may be diagnosed by a physical exam, but your doctor will also likely confirm the diagnosis with a saliva or blood test,” Dr. Oller explains.

Often, the characteristic swollen salivary glands will be enough for a diagnosis, but sometimes a virus culture will be necessary. In this case, your child’s throat and cheeks will be swabbed and a sample will be sent to a lab for analysis.

How Long Does Mumps Last?

Most people recover from mumps within two weeks. Fever can last between three to five days and other symptoms usually resolve within a week or two. Salivary gland swelling usually lasts between five to 10 days.

How to Treat Mumps

The good news is that most mumps infections are mild, and children can be treated at home with the same comforts and care that you give any time your child is sick with a respiratory virus, says Dr. Perez.

Symptoms of fever or soreness can be treated with over-the-counter pain relievers such as acetaminophen or ibuprofen, Dr. Perez recommends. Make sure to talk to your doctor about the proper dosing of these medications, as they vary based on your child’s age and weight.

As for swollen glands, you can apply warm or cold compresses to this area, depending on what seems to soothe your child, says Dr. Perez. You may need to consider foods that require less chewing during this time, she notes. And of course, make sure your child is taking in plenty of fluids and rest.

Is Mumps Contagious?

Mumps is quite contagious. It’s mainly spread by respiratory droplets that an infected person expels when coughing, talking, or sneezing. Close contact situations (such as kissing and playing sports) can spread it, and so can sharing objects like cups and utensils.

There is a long incubation period associated with mumps: It can take anywhere from 12 to 25 days after exposure to show signs that you've caught the virus. Someone with mumps will be able to spread the virus to others about two days before developing swollen salivary glands or other symptoms and up to five days afterward.

Kids who get mumps can be contagious with it for a while. According to the Academy of American Pediatrics (AAP), you should keep your child out of school or daycare for at least nine days after they've had swelling of their salivary glands or other active symptoms.

How to Keep Mumps From Spreading Through the Household

You also will want to do your best to ensure that mumps doesn’t spread to other family members, says Dr. Oller. She recommends keeping the infected child away from siblings, making sure no one shares utensils or cups, teaching your child to cover any coughs and sneezes with their elbow, and wiping down surfaces where the infected has been.

How to Prevent Mumps

All experts agree that the best way to prevent mumps is through immunization with the MMR vaccine. “The best way, and truly the only effective way to prevent mumps, is to be vaccinated,” says Dr. Oller.

The MMR vaccine prevents mumps as well as measles and rubella. The AAP recommends that children get the vaccine at 12 months and then again at 4 years old. MMR is highly effective: Two doses can prevent mumps about 88% of the time. If a person becomes infected with mumps but is vaccinated, they are less likely to have a very bad case of it.

Why the MMR Vaccine Is Important

Before the MMR vaccine was available, mumps was a fairly common childhood virus. In some cases, children became permanently deaf or died from complications. However, since the MMR vaccine became routine in kids in the 1970s, incidents of mumps have decreased by 99%.

Importantly, because much of the population is vaccinated, outbreaks are rare. The AAP estimates that about 500 people get mumps a year.

It’s common to have questions about vaccines, but reactions to the MMR shot are usually mild and include fever, swollen glands, and a slight rash. Although you may have heard otherwise, there is no link between the MMR vaccine and autism. Furthermore, MMR vaccines do not contain the mercury-containing preservative thimerosal that concerns many parents.

A Word From Verywell

Although it’s unlikely that your child will be exposed to mumps, much less become infected with it, it’s possible: Mumps outbreaks do happen from time to time. Again, the most important thing you can do to prevent this from happening is to get your child and your whole family vaccinated.

If your child does catch mumps, they will likely have an uncomfortable but uneventful illness. Still, you’ll want to reach out to your pediatrician to understand the best way to care for your child, symptoms that may require immediate medical care, and tips for preventing mumps from spreading to family and friends.

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9 Sources
Verywell Family uses only high-quality sources, including peer-reviewed studies, to support the facts within our articles. Read our editorial process to learn more about how we fact-check and keep our content accurate, reliable, and trustworthy.
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  2. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. Signs & Symptoms of Mumps.

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