Mumps is a contagious viral infection that used to be common in children.
It’s most recognisable by the painful swellings at the side of the face under the ears (the parotid glands), giving a person with mumps a distinctive "hamster face" appearance.
Other symptoms include headache, joint pain and a high temperature, which may develop a few days before the swelling of the parotid glands.
When to see your GP
It's important to contact your GP if you suspect that you or your child has mumps, so a diagnosis can be made.
Let your GP know in advance if you are coming to the surgery, so they can take any necessary precautions to prevent the spread of infection.
While mumps is not usually serious, the condition has similar symptoms to more serious types of infection, such as glandular feverand tonsillitis.
Who is affected
Before the introduction of the MMR vaccine in 1988, mumps was a common infection in school-aged children. It was responsible for about 1,200 hospital admissions a year in England and Wales.
Mumps is much less common now, with most cases occurring in younger people (usually born between 1980 and 1990) who didn’t receive the MMR vaccine as part of their childhood vaccination schedule or didn't have mumps as a child. There were 2466 confirmed cases of mumps in England and Wales during 2012.
Once you have been infected by the mumps virus, you normally develop a life-long immunity to further infection.
How mumps is spread
Mumps is spread in the same way as colds and flu - through infected droplets of saliva that can be inhaled or picked up from surfaces and transferred into the mouth or nose.
A person is most contagious a few days before the symptoms develop and for a few days afterwards.
During this time, it's important to prevent the infection spreading to others, particularly teenagers and young adults who have not been vaccinated.
If you have mumps, you can help prevent it spreading by regularly washing your hands with soap, using and disposing of tissues when you sneeze, and avoiding school or work for at least five days after your symptoms first developed.
You can protect your child against mumps by making sure they are given the combined MMR vaccine (for mumps, measles and rubella).
The MMR vaccine is part of the routine childhood immunisation schedule. Your child should be given one dose when they are around 12-13 months and a second booster dose before they start school. Once both doses are given, the vaccine provides 95% protection against mumps.
Treatment for mumps
There is currently no cure for mumps, but the infection should pass within one or two weeks.
Treatment is used to relieve symptoms and includes using painkillers, such as ibuprofen and paracetamol, and applying a warm or cool compress to the swollen glands to help relieve pain.
Mumps will usually pass without causing serious damage to a person's health. Serious complications are rare.
However, mumps can lead to viral meningitis if the virus moves into the outer layer of the brain. Other complications include swelling of the testicles in males or the ovaries in females (if the affected male or female has gone through puberty).
Symptoms of mumps
The symptoms of mumps usually develop 14 to 25 days after a person is infected with the mumps virus (the incubation period). The average incubation period is around 17 days.
Swelling of the parotid glands is the most common symptom of mumps. The parotid glands are a pair of glands responsible for producing saliva. They are located in either side of your face, just below your ears.
Both glands are usually affected by the swelling, although only one gland can be affected. The swelling can cause pain, tenderness and difficulty with swallowing.
More general symptoms often develop a few days before the parotid glands swell. These can include:
- joint pain
- feeling sick
- dry mouth
- mild abdominal pain
- feeling tired
- loss of appetite
- a high temperature (fever) of 38°C (100.4°F), or above
In about 1 in 3 cases, mumps doesn't cause any noticeable symptoms.
When to seek medical advice
If you suspect that you or your child has mumps, it's important to call your GP.
While the infection is not usually serious, mumps has similar symptoms to other, more serious types of infection, such as glandular fever andtonsillitis. It's always best to visit your GP so that they can confirm (or rule out) a diagnosis of mumps.
It's also important to let your GP know in advance if you are coming to the surgery so they can take any necessary precautions to avoid the spread of infection.
Causes of mumps
Mumps is caused by the mumps virus, which belongs to a family of viruses known as paramyxoviruses. These viruses are a common source of infection, particularly in children.
When you get mumps, the virus moves from your respiratory tract (your nose, mouth and throat) into your parotid glands (saliva-producing glands found either side of your face), where it begins to reproduce. This causes the glands to swell.
The virus can also enter your cerebrospinal fluid (CSF), which is the fluid that surrounds and protects your brain and spine. Once the virus has entered the CSF, it can spread to other parts of your body, such as your brain, pancreas, testicles (in boys and men) and ovaries (in girls and women).
How mumps is spread
Mumps is an airborne virus and can be spread by:
- an infected person coughing or sneezing and releasing tiny droplets of contaminated saliva, which can then be breathed in by another person
- an infected person touching their nose or mouth, then transferring the virus onto an object, such as a door handle, or work surface; if someone else then touches the object shortly afterwards, they can transfer the virus into their respiratory tract
- sharing utensils, such as cups, cutlery or plates with an infected person
People with mumps are usually most infectious from a few days before their parotid glands swell until a few days afterwards. For this reason, it is advisable to avoid work or school for five days after your symptoms first develop if you are diagnosed with mumps.
Mumps can also be passed on by people who are infected with the virus but don't have any obvious symptoms.
If you suspect that you or your child has mumps, it's important to see your GP for a diagnosis.
Let your GP know in advance of your surgery visit so any necessary precautions to prevent the spread of infection can be taken.
Mumps can usually be diagnosed from the symptoms, in particular the swelling of glands in the sides of your face (parotid glands).
If you have mumps, your GP can see and feel the swelling. By looking inside your mouth, they may be able to see that your tonsils have been pushed out of their usual position.
Your GP can also check your temperature to see if it is higher than normal.
If your GP suspects mumps, they should notify your local health protection unit (HPU). The HPU will arrange for a sample of your saliva to be tested to confirm or rule out the diagnosis.
There are currently no medications to treat the mumps virus. Instead, treatment is focused on relieving symptoms until your body’s immune system fights off the infection.
The infection will usually pass within a week or two.
In the meantime, the self-care techniques listed below may help.
- get plenty of bed rest until your symptoms have passed
- take over-the-counter painkillers, such as ibuprofen orparacetamol, to relieve any pain (children aged 16 or under should not be given aspirin)
- drink plenty of fluids, but avoid acidic drinks such as fruit juice as these can irritate your parotid glands; water is usually the best fluid to drink
- apply a warm or cool compress to your swollen glands to help reduce any pain
- eat foods that don't require a lot of chewing, such as soup, mashed potatoes and scrambled eggs
If your symptoms don’t improve after seven days, or suddenly worsen, contact your GP for advice.
Preventing the spread of infection
If you or your child has mumps, it’s important to prevent the infection spreading, particularly to younger people born between 1980 and 1990 (these people are unlikely to have immunity due to previous infection, but are also unlikely to have been vaccinated).
The best way to do this is to:
- stay away from school, college or work until five days after you first developed symptoms
- wash your hands regularly, using soap and water
- always use a tissue to cover your mouth and nose when you cough and sneeze, and throw the tissue in a bin immediately afterwards
Complications of mumps
There are several problems that often occur with mumps. These can be worrying, but they are rarely serious and usually improve as the infection passes.
Pain and swelling of the testicles (orchitis) affects one in four males who get mumps after puberty. The swelling is usually sudden and affects only one testicle. The testicle may also feel warm and tender.
In affected boys and men swelling of their testicles normally begins four to eight days after the swelling of the parotid gland. Occasionally, swelling can occur up to six weeks after the swelling of the glands.
Any testicle pain can be eased using over-the-counter painkillers, such as paracetamol or ibuprofen. If the pain is particularly severe, contact your GP who may prescribe a stronger painkiller for you.
Applying cold or warm compresses to your testicles and wearing supportive underwear, may also reduce any pain.
Just under half of all males who get mumps-related orchitis will notice some shrinkage of their testicles and an estimated 1 in 10 men will experience a drop in their sperm count (the amount of healthy sperm that their body can produce). However, this is very rarely large enough to cause infertility.
One in 20 females who get mumps after puberty will experience swelling of the ovaries (oophoritis), which can cause:
- lower abdominal pain
- high temperature
- being sick
The symptoms of oophoritis usually pass once the body has fought off the underlying mumps infection.
Viral meningitis can occur if the mumps virus spreads into the outer protective layer of the brain, which is known as the meninges. It occurs in about one in seven cases of mumps.
Unlike bacterial meningitis, which is regarded as a potentially life-threatening medical emergency, viral meningitis causes milder, flu-like symptoms, and the risk of serious complications is low.
Sensitivity to light and vomiting are common symptoms of viral meningitis. These usually pass within 14 days.
About 1 in 20 cases of mumps leads to the short-term inflammation of the pancreas (acute pancreatitis). The most common symptom is sudden pain in the centre of your belly. Other symptoms of acute pancreatitis can include:
- feeling sick
- being sick
- loss of appetite
- high temperature
- tenderness of the belly
- (less commonly) yellowing of the skin and the whites of the eyes (jaundice)
Although the pancreatitis associated with mumps is usually mild, you may be admitted to hospital so your body functions can be supported until your pancreas recovers.
Rare complications of mumps
Rare but potentially serious complications of mumps include an infection of the brain itself, which is known as encephalitis. This is thought to occur in around 1 in 1,000 people who develop viral meningitis due to mumps. Encephalitis is a potentially fatal condition that requires admission to a hospital intensive care unit.
About 1 in 20 people with mumps will experience some temporary hearing loss, but permanent loss of hearing is rare. It is estimated this occurs in around 1 in 20,000 cases of mumps.
Mumps and pregnancy
In the past it was thought developing mumps during pregnancy increased the risk of miscarriage, but there is little evidence to support this.
However, as a general precaution it is recommended pregnant women avoid close contact with people known to have an active mumps infection (or any other type of infection).