Family doctor



MUMPS- a patient's guide


An outline of this vaccine preventable illness.


  • Mumps is caused by a virus
  • It normally affects the salivary glands causing swelling below the jaw, in front of the ear
  • It is spread through coughing and sneezing
  • The illness may also cause fever, weakness, and difficulty swallowing
  • Possible complications include meningitis, deafness and male sterility
  • The illness is infectious for about 14 days
  • Children should be kept home from school until their swelling disappears
  • The MMR vaccine protects against mumps and is an important part of the immunisation schedule

What is mumps?

Mumps is caused by a virus which particularly attacks the salivary glands. The gland in front of the ear and below the jaw is most commonly affected.

Mumps was considered a normal childhood disease until an immunisation programme, introduced in the late 1960s, helped to dramatically reduce the number of cases.

Mumps is usually a mild illness but meningitis is a possible complication. Meningitis is marked by a headache, sensitivity to light , and neck stiffness. In rare cases deafness can occur.

Mumps can lead to male infertility if men catch it as adults, although this is an extremely rare complication.

The disease is moderately infectious. It is spread by coughing and sneezing and has an incubation period of between 16 to 21 days.

It is infectious from two days before symptoms develop and until the swellings go down.

What are the symptoms?

The first sign is usually swelling of the glands around the jaw. One gland swells first followed by the opposite side in 70 percent of cases. The glands may be painful and tender.

The child may complain of ear ache and difficulty swallowing. They may also have a fever, a dry mouth and experience discomfort while eating.

After adolescence mumps can cause inflammation of the ovaries in women and the testes in men, typically two to three days after the neck swelling. Adult testes are particularly vulnerable to damage from mumps; however, swelling usually affects one side only. Sterility is rare and only occurs if both testes are affected.

What is the treatment?

There is no cure for mumps once it has been caught. The recommended advice is to take paracetamol to relieve pain and fever, rest until the fever subsides, and eat foods which are not too hard to swallow. Drinking with a straw may be easier.

Sufferers should be isolated, especially from unimmunised adults who have not had the illness.

Children should be kept home from school for 14 days or until their swellings have disappeared.

Seek prompt medical attention if a male experiences swelling of the testes or any sufferer experiences severe vomiting, headache ,is delirious, has a stiff neck, or if hearing appears to be affected.

How can it be prevented?

Immunisation is the key to preventing the illness. The mumps vaccine is combined with the measles and rubella vaccine and is called the MMR vaccine. It is normally given as part of a wider immunisation programme at 15 months and 4 years old.

Some children with weak immune systems, children on drug treatment, should not be given the MMR vaccine.

What is the future?

Many countries still have low immunisation rates, particularly among ethnic populations. Increasing immunisation rates worldwide will help to eradicate this disease.

Getting help

Your family doctor, practice nurse or paediatrician will be able to help.



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