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Mumps

Key points

  • Mumps is an infectious illness caused by the mumps virus.
  • It may cause swollen glands in your neck.
  • It’s easily passed on when an infected person coughs or sneezes.
  • Mumps can be prevented by vaccination with the measles, mumps and rubella (MMR) vaccine.

Mumps is an infectious illness caused by the mumps virus, which belongs to a family of viruses called paramyxoviruses. It causes swollen glands in your neck and you can catch it at any age. At one time, it was common in children, but is now less so because of the measles, mumps and rubella (MMR) vaccination.

About mumps

Before the MMR vaccination was introduced in the UK, mumps used to be very common, with more than eight out of 10 adults having had the infection at some point in their lives. When children started being vaccinated against mumps, the number of people catching the infection fell quickly. Now that MMR is a routine childhood vaccination, mumps has become much less common. However, you can still catch mumps at any age if you haven't been vaccinated. There have been a number of outbreaks of mumps infection in the past few years. Most of the people affected were born between 1980 and 1990, and had never been vaccinated against mumps or been exposed to the virus naturally.

Mumps is most common in winter and spring, although you can become infected at any time of the year.

Nearly all people who have had mumps are immune for life and, therefore, won't catch it again.

Symptoms of mumps

Your symptoms will usually start two to three weeks after you have come into contact with someone who has the virus. This time is called the incubation period. About one in three people with mumps don't get any symptoms.

You are most infective two days before and up to nine days after your symptoms begin. If you have mumps, you should stay away from work for five days after your symptoms start. If your child has mumps, he or she should stay away from school or nursery for five days after his or her symptoms start.

At first, the symptoms of mumps are similar to those of flu, and can include:

  • fever (high temperature)
  • headache
  • loss of appetite
  • tiredness
  • muscle aches

A day or two later, you may develop earache and it may hurt to chew. You may also develop swellings on one or both sides of your neck, just below your ears. This is due to your salivary (parotid) glands becoming swollen.

These symptoms aren't always caused by mumps but if you have them, see your GP.

Complications of mumps

Mumps usually gets better on its own without causing any other problems. However, a small number of people who have mumps go on to develop more serious health problems. Some of the main ones are listed below.

  • If you're a man, inflammation of your testicles and epididymis (the place where sperm are stored in your testicles) can occur. This is known as epididymo-orchitis and happens to around four in 10 men who get mumps. This can lead to sperm problems in a small number of men, for example, producing fewer or less active sperm. However, it's rare for mumps to affect your fertility.
  • Inflamed ovaries (oophoritis). This can develop in about five in 100 women who have mumps. However, it’s unlikely to affect your fertility.
  • Inflammation of the covering of your brain (viral meningitis). This develops in about one in 10 people who have mumps. Meningitis can also lead to encephalitis, which is inflammation of your brain. This is a more serious health problem and can be life-threatening. However, this is rare.
  • Loss of hearing happens to about four in 100 people with mumps – but this is usually temporary.
  • Inflamed pancreas (pancreatitis). Your pancreas is an organ in your abdomen that produces digestive juices, which break down the food you eat. About four in 100 people with mumps develop pancreatitis, but it's usually mild.

If you, or your child, develop any of the following symptoms, you should see your GP.

  • Swollen, painful testicles which may be accompanied by a fever and chills.
  • Pain in your abdomen.
  • Stiffness in your neck.
  • Sensitivity to light and vomiting.

You should also see your GP if you have symptoms of mumps and are in the early part of your pregnancy. If you're in the first three months of pregnancy and catch mumps, there may be an increased risk of having a miscarriage.

Causes of mumps

You can catch mumps from close personal contact with someone who is infected with the virus. The mumps virus is spread, as with cold or flu viruses, from contaminated surfaces or by the droplets released when someone coughs or sneezes. It's very contagious (similar to flu and rubella) and can spread quickly among people who live or work together.

Diagnosis of mumps

Your GP will ask you about your symptoms and examine you. He or she will ask you whether you have been in contact with anyone who has mumps.

Your GP will look for signs of swelling in one or both of your salivary glands. This usually happens a day or two after your other symptoms have started.

Mumps is a notifiable disease. This means that if your GP thinks you have mumps, by law he or she has to report it. Your GP will contact your local Health Protection Unit, and they will arrange a testing kit to confirm that you have mumps. This usually means taking a swab from your mouth and having it tested for the virus. You may also have a blood test.

Treatment of mumps

There is no specific treatment for mumps. Mumps usually gets better on its own about a week after your symptoms start. However, you can treat the symptoms of mumps, which will make you feel more comfortable.

If you need pain relief, you can take over-the-counter painkillers, such as paracetamol or ibuprofen. Always read the patient information that comes with your medicine and if you have any questions, ask your pharmacist for advice.

You should rest and drink enough fluids to prevent you from becoming dehydrated – usually six to eight glasses of water a day. Don't drink fruit juice made from citrus fruits, such as oranges or grapefruits, as this can make the pain in your salivary glands worse. 

You may find that using an ice pack on your swollen salivary glands also helps. Don’t put ice directly onto your skin as this can damage your skin.

If your symptoms get worse, or haven't improved after a week, contact your GP.

Prevention of mumps

Mumps can be prevented by having a vaccination. The mumps vaccine is part of the MMR vaccination given as part of the national immunisation programme in the UK. Children are given the MMR vaccine at 12 to 13 months and again from three years five months to five years old. After two doses of the vaccine, more than nine out of 10 children will be immune to mumps and, therefore, won't catch it.

There is no upper age when the MMR vaccine can be given, so adults and older children can also have the vaccine. The two vaccinations must be given at least one month apart. However, you shouldn’t have the MMR vaccine if you’re pregnant. See out frequently asked questions for more information about this. If you have been in contact with someone who has mumps, being vaccinated afterwards won't prevent you from catching it.

 

Produced by Dylan Merkett, Bupa Health Information Team, June 2013.

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For answers to frequently asked questions on this topic, see FAQs.

For sources and links to further information, see Resources.

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  • This information was published by Bupa's Health Information Team and is based on reputable sources of medical evidence. It has been reviewed by appropriate medical or clinical professionals. Photos are only for illustrative purposes and do not reflect every presentation of a condition. The content is intended only for general information and does not replace the need for personal advice from a qualified health professional. For more details on how we produce our content and its sources, visit the about our health information page.

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