Understanding Mumps: Symptoms, Treatment, and Prevention

Learn about outbreaks, who's at higher risk for complications, how to safeguard against being infected.

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

Updated on November 8, 2023.

Before the first mumps vaccine became available in 1967, most children in the United States would contract the infection at some point. In fact, it was a common cause of childhood hearing loss. But thanks to widespread immunization, mumps diagnoses dropped significantly in the following years—up to 99 percent, by some estimates.

Still, outbreaks have occurred fairly regularly. Several thousand people contracted mumps during resurgences in the late 1980s and mid 2000s, for example. And between January 2016 and June 2017, about 9,200 cases were diagnosed in 150 separate outbreaks across the country. Cases declined significantly starting in 2020, perhaps due to less interaction during the COVID-19 pandemic. 

So, what about now? Is there any reason to be worried? 

“I don't think there's anything alarming out there,” says Michael Kaplan, MD, a family doctor with CareNow in Magnolia, 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. Perhaps the most well-known symptom, however, is the swelling of salivary glands under the ear on one or both sides of the face. Called parotitis, it can make chewing difficult and painful, and sets mumps apart from colds and most other illnesses.

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. Some of the most common are orchitis, a swelling in the testicles that affects males after puberty, and oophoritis and mastitis, which are swelling in the ovaries and breasts, respectively. In some cases, mumps can also lead to hearing loss or inflammation of the pancreas, spinal cord tissue, or brain. 

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

How mumps is spread

The mumps virus is contagious and can be spread through direct contact with an infected person’s saliva or mucus, or by inhaling respiratory drops containing the virus. If someone with mumps coughs, sneezes, or even talks with you, it’s possible to become infected. 

It's believed an infected person is most contagious from a few days before their salivary glands start 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 by getting the measles, mumps, and rubella (MMR) vaccine. 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—there are multiple reasons an adult might need to be vaccinated. 

  • If you have never been immunized and were born in 1957 or afterward, you should 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 recommended. 
  • Two doses are also advised if you’re traveling internationally or working in healthcare.
  • Even if you’ve been vaccinated twice before, the Advisory Committee on Immunization Practices suggests people receive a third MMR shot if there’s an outbreak occurring nearby and you’re at increased risk of infection. 

While it’s still possible to catch the disease if you’re immunized, it occurs much more frequently in unvaccinated people. In fact, 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 than those who have had none. But that’s not all. If a vaccinated person does get the mumps, their symptoms will likely be milder, with fewer complications. 

If you live or study in an outbreak area, there are other precautions you should take. It’s important to wash your hands regularly with soap and water. Be careful not to share items with others, especially while eating. 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 HCP 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. 

If you’re unsure whether you’ve been vaccinated or if you should receive an additional shot, reach out to your HCP.

Article sources open article sources

Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. Mumps Cases and Outbreaks. Page last reviewed August 4, 2023. 
Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. Epidemiology and Prevention of Vaccine-Preventable Diseases: The Pink Book: Course Textbook 14th Edition - 2001. Page last reviewed August 18, 2021.
Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. Signs & Symptoms of Mumps. Page last reviewed March 8, 2021. 
Immunization Action Coalition. Mumps: Questions and Answers. PDF accessed August 23, 2023. 
Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. Complications of Mumps. Page last reviewed March 8, 2021. 
Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. Transmission of Mumps. Page last reviewed March 8, 2021. 
Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. Mumps Vaccination. Page last reviewed September 17, 2021. 
Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. Outbreak-Related Questions and Answers. Page last reviewed March 8, 2021. 
Cleveland Clinic. Mumps. Page last reviewed September 28, 2022.

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