Medical quality assurance by Dr. Albrecht Nonnenmacher, MD at February 1, 2016

Mumps is a viral infection that spreads easily from person to person, is generally painful, can have serious complications, and is preventable. Outbreaks of the disease have become rare in the United States and many other nations due to high vaccination rates. Still, outbreaks happen, striking children or adults with symptoms ranging from mild to severe.


Definition & Facts

Mumps is caused by a family of viruses called Paramyxoviridae. While easily transmissible, the mumps virus can fortunately be easily vaccinated against by using the MMR vaccine. This vaccine protects not only against getting mumps but measles and rubella as well.

The widespread usage of this vaccination since 1967 has helped bring the number of cases well under control in the United States. As such, the disease and its potentially severe complications have become rare during the past few decades. In recent years, the number of mumps cases has ranged from a low of 229 in 2012 to a high of 2,612 in 2010. That is a significant drop from the approximately 186,000 cases reported each year in pre-1967 America.

Symptoms & Complaints

The symptoms of mumps can vary in their severity. For some people, having the disease means suffering severely with a host of symptoms. Other infected people have few or very mild symptoms; there are even some individuals who are fortunate not to have any symptoms at all. However, regardless of the severity of his or her symptoms, an infected person is contagious and can easily infect others.

It is typical for a person who is infected with mumps to suffer from pain and swelling along the jaw, headache, muscle aches and fever. The person is also likely to be extremely tired, and they may have a loss of appetite. Swelling of the parotid glands usually occurs.

In some cases, there may be more significant issues. For males, inflammation of the testicles is a very real concern; in extreme cases, it is possible for this to lead to fertility issues or even sterility. In females, the ovaries or breasts may become inflamed.

Severe complications such as inflammation of the brain, which is known as encephalitis, may also arise in some rare cases. Another potential complication, which was rampant in the past but has now become rare, is deafness.


The paramyxovirus that causes mumps is carried by and transmitted only between humans. The mumps virus can be spread easily through casual contact between people. Coughing, sneezing or even talking may pass it from an infected person to another. Sharing or even touching items that might have saliva on them such as eating utensils can also spread the virus. Given how easily transmissible mumps is, crowded settings such as dormitories and daycare centers where people tend to be in close contact with each other are especially good places in which the disease can spread.

Diagnosis & Tests

If someone suspects mumps either in himself or herself or a child, it is important to see a doctor for a diagnosis. At a visit to the doctor's office, he or she will take a history of the ill person. If the doctor thinks that the patient may be infected with the mumps virus, he or she is likely to order a blood test to confirm this. An oral swab is another way that the disease is sometimes diagnosed. It should be noted, though, that a negative test result does not necessarily mean that one does not have mumps.

Treatment & Therapy

The path to recovering from mumps takes time and rest. It can take about two weeks or so to recover from this viral infection. During that time, the infected person should refrain from going to school, work or other public spaces. Resting at home is the typical course of action in the face of the disease, and it helps both in recovery and in preventing the spread of the virus.

There are several things that can be done to make the ill person feel a bit better. Relieving the pain caused by the disease is one of the major things in dealing with mumps. This can be achieved through the use of pain relievers, and due to the risk of the rare but potentially very serious Reye's syndrome, ibuprofen is a much safer choice than aspirin for alleviating mumps-related pain in anyone who is aged 20 or under.

Another way to help reduce pain is via the use of either ice or heat packs. Due to the swelling and the sore throat that often accompanies the infection, sticking to soft foods is also a good step to take while dealing with mumps. As is true with many other illnesses, it is very important for someone fighting mumps to stay hydrated.

Prevention & Prophylaxis

While easily spreadable, mumps is also a disease that is easily preventable. The MMR vaccine generally prevents the disease, with two doses of the vaccine being even more effective than one. Thus, it is important for children to be vaccinated on time and boosters to be sought as needed. This includes students heading off to college for the first time and women of childbearing age.

The vaccine is widely available and is quick and easy to obtain. While it does not prevent all cases of mumps, it prevents most. For those who have been vaccinated but still become infected with mumps, the illness tends to be significantly less severe than it would otherwise be.

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