Understanding Mumps: Symptoms, Treatment, and Prevention

Colleges have been hit hard in recent years. Didn't we get a mumps vaccine for that?

A college-age woman checks her temperature and wonders what mumps are—because she hasn't had a mumps vaccine.

Medically reviewed in November 2021

Since the mumps vaccine was first approved in 1967, cases of mumps have dropped significantly—by more than 99 percent. But outbreaks over the last few years suggest the illness could be making a comeback. In 2012 there were 229 cases of mumps. In 2016, that number rose to 5,833. 

College campuses, in particular, became breeding grounds for the illness. In 2017, universities including Syracuse, Wake Forest and American reported mumps outbreaks. Many emailed students to make sure their immunizations were up to date. 

So, should you be worried? “I don't think there's anything alarming out there—but the number of reported cases has been increasing the past 10 years,” says Michael Kaplan, MD, a family doctor of CareNow in Montgomery, Texas. “We have to be aware and vigilant of these outbreaks and we need to eliminate them one day through a cure,” he adds. In the meantime, here's how to recognize, prevent and treat mumps. 

What are the symptoms of mumps? 
Common mumps symptoms include fever, loss of appetite, headache, body aches and fatigue. But what are mumps? They are different from the common cold or any other illness because of the swelling of the salivary glands under the ear on one or both sides of the face, often referred to as parotitis. It can make chewing difficult and painful if the swelling is extreme. 

Usually, mumps symptoms don't show until about 16 to 18 days after someone becomes infected, but they could show up as early as 12 days afterward, and as late as 25 days afterward. Because of the long incubation period, “People could be walking around and not realize they're sick for quite a while,” says Dr. Kaplan. 

While rare, mumps can have some health complications. The most common one is called orchitis and occurs in males after puberty, causing swelling in the testicles. In some cases, mumps can also lead to hearing loss or brain inflammation. 

You should visit your healthcare provider right away if you think you or someone in your family has the mumps. 

How it’s spread 
The highly contagious virus can be spread through direct contact with an infected person’s saliva or mucus, or by inhaling respiratory drops containing the virus. If they cough, sneeze or even converse with you, it’s possible to catch it. It's believed that the infected person is most contagious one to three days before their salivary glands begin to swell, up to about five days afterward. They should stay home from school or work and avoid contact with people during this time. 

Mumps vaccines and prevention 
The best way to prevent getting mumps is through the measles, mumps and rubella (MMR) vaccination. Children usually receive the first dose when they're 12 to 15 months old, and the second a couple of years later, between the ages of 4 and 6. But it’s not just for kids. If you have never been immunized and were born in 1957 or afterward, it’s recommended you get at least one MMR vaccination. If you are living in an area where you're at an increased risk of getting mumps—like a college, military post or high school—then two doses of the vaccine are suggested. 

According to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC), receiving two doses of the vaccine makes you nine times less likely to get mumps compared to those who have not been vaccinated. But that’s not all—the CDC also says that if a vaccinated person does get the mumps, their symptoms won’t be as bad. 

The Advisory Committee on Immunization Practices suggests adults receive the MMR booster if there’s an outbreak occurring nearby, even if they’ve had the vaccine twice before. While it’s still possible to catch the disease if you’re vaccinated, it occurs much more frequently in unvaccinated people. 

If you live or study in an outbreak area, it’s important to wash your hands regularly. Be careful not to share items with others, especially while eating, and practice good general hygiene to avoid spreading or catching the illness. Also, be sure to disinfect countertops, doorknobs and utensils. 

If you think you might be infected, make sure to cover sneezes and coughs with the crook of your elbow or a tissue, which should be disposed of immediately. Avoid covering your mouth with your hand. 

How to treat mumps 
“Typically, the mumps is treated very conservatively,” says Kaplan. Recovering from the mumps could take a couple of weeks. It’s a viral infection which cannot be treated with antibiotics. To ease symptoms, try the following: 

  • Relax: Get plenty of rest. 
  • Try over-the-counter (OTC) medicine: Acetaminophen (Tylenol) or ibuprofen (Motrin, Advil) can help soothe some of the pain and swelling. Talk to your healthcare provider if you decide to use OTC pain relievers. 
  • Warm/cold compresses: Place the pack on glands to ease inflammation. 
  • Eat soft foods: Avoid foods that are difficult to chew, which can exacerbate symptoms. 

“The mumps isn’t really anything we should be too worried about,” says Kaplan. “However, we certainly have to be very cautious when outbreaks are reported in our local communities, like in public schools, or colleges,” he adds. Make sure you’re up to date on your vaccinations and check the CDC for a full list of who should and shouldn’t get the mumps vaccine.

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