What is mumps?

Mumps is a disease caused by a virus. It causes painful swelling of the salivary glands, also called the parotid glands. These glands are in front of and below each ear, near the lower jaw.

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Mumps is caused by a virus that spreads through the air. Symptoms include swelling of one or both of the parotid glands, headaches, tiredness and a low-grade fever.

Signs and symptoms of mumps

Common symptoms include:

  • swelling of one or both of the parotid glands in front of the ear and crossing into the corner of the jaw
  • cough or runny nose
  • headache and muscle ache
  • tiredness
  • low-grade fever
  • abdominal (tummy) pain and loss of appetite.

About one in three children will have no symptoms or very mild symptoms.

How mumps is diagnosed

Your family doctor will diagnose mumps by doing a physical exam of your child. The doctor may also order a blood test or swabs from the nose or throat to help confirm the diagnosis.

How the mumps virus spreads

Mumps spreads through the air from one person to another through coughing, sneezing or even speaking. Mumps can also spread by touch. For example, your child may catch the virus by touching a surface covered with infected droplets and then touching their eyes, mouth or face.

Mumps is very contagious (spreads very easily) from one to two days before the glands start to swell to five days after swelling starts. If your child has mumps, keep them away from others, especially from babies and younger children, until they are no longer contagious.

Complications of mumps

Mumps is usually mild in children, but complications can sometimes occur. Serious complications, which are rare, can have a long-lasting effect into adulthood.

  • If caught at a young age, mumps can cause deafness in about one out of 20,000 infected children.
  • Mumps can damage the central nervous system, which may lead to meningitis, encephalitis or cerebellar ataxia (problems co-ordinating movements). Nervous system complications from mumps are more common in adults but they can occur in children as well.
  • Mumps can cause orchitis (swollen testicles) in four out of 10 teen and adult males. It is more common after puberty and may involve pain for a number of weeks, swelling, tenderness, nausea, vomiting and fever. Orchitis does not affect fertility.

How to prevent mumps

A vaccine to protect against mumps is available free of charge in many countries as part of the measles, mumps and rubella (MMR) vaccine. Children receive it in two doses.

  • The first dose is given soon after your child’s first birthday.
  • The second dose is given before your child starts school.

Most cases of mumps occur in people who have not been vaccinated or have not received the booster shot. Ask your doctor about the MMR vaccine if you or your child are not immune.

How to care for a child with mumps at home

There is no specific treatment for mumps. You can support your child by trying to make them comfortable.

Monitor and treat the fever

If your child has a fever or is in pain, you may give them acetaminophen or ibuprofen​. Do not give your child acetylsalicylic acid (ASA).

Give your child fluids

Offer your child water or other fluids often to keep them hydrated.

Isolate your child and allow them bed rest

Your child cannot go to school or day care for five days after their glands start to swell. In Canada, cases of mumps are reported to the nearest Public Health Department. The department will tell you when it is safe for your child to return to regular activities.

When to see a doctor

Call your child’s regular doctor if:

  • your child’s fever lasts for longer than three days
  • the swelling lasts for longer than seven days (in many cases, the other side of the face will swell within a few days of the first side)
  • the swelling becomes more painful.

Take your child to the nearest emergency department or call 911 if:

  • their behaviour or physical abilities change 
  • they have a seizure
  • they are not eating or drinking and are dehydrated.

Key points

  • Mumps is an infection caused by a virus. It is usually mild in children.
  • Common symptoms include swelling of the glands in the cheek and mouth, pain, fever and tiredness.
  • Since mumps is very contagious, keep your child away from others for at least five days after their glands start to swell.
  • Mumps can be prevented with the MMR vaccine.

Shawna Silver, MD, FRCPC, FAAP, PEng