Mumps: symptoms, causes and risk factors


We look at the causes, symptoms, treatment and potential complications of mumps.

Medically reviewed by Dr Roger Henderson and based on a text by Dr Per Grinsted

Mumps is a contagious viral infection that is easily spread through saliva or droplets in a cough or sneeze – similar to cold and flu. Mumps used to be common in children before the introduction of the MMR vaccine.

There has been a spike of recorded mumps cases across England in 2019 amongst university students, so Public Health England are now calling for people to ensure they have been appropriately immunised with the MMR vaccine.

If you or your child has not been vaccinated, we look at the signs, symptoms and potential complications of mumps in children and adults:

What is mumps?

Mumps is caused by a paramyxovirus. It is the disease with the longest incubation period and can take as long as three weeks from infection to outbreak, which can make it difficult to track down the source of infection.

The virus is contagious for about two to three days before and up to seven to eight days after the disease breaks out.

How do you catch mumps?

Mumps is a viral infection spread by airborne droplets from the nose or throat. However, it is the least contagious of the five major children’s diseases and requires close contact before infection can occur.

Mumps is a viral infection spread by airborne droplets from the nose or throat.

Though small children can get mumps, the disease is most common after the age of two. Today, most children are vaccinated against mumps with the MMR (measles, mumps, rubella) vaccination.

The virus enters the body through the airways, then passes around the body in the bloodstream. It can end up almost everywhere – the kidneys, thyroid gland, pancreas, sexual glands and, not least, the salivary gland. The virus thrives in the parotid salivary glands, which lie in the cheeks just in front of the ears.

Mumps symptoms

Mumps usually begins with two days of discomfort and an increasing temperature. This is followed by an uncomfortable feeling in the jawbone, later accompanied by a swelling of the parotid glands. Often the swelling occurs unevenly, on one side of the face before the other.

Mumps usually begins with two days of discomfort and an increasing temperature.

The body temperature may rise to 40oC and the swelling can feel oppressive and sore. The earlobes stick out and the child’s face eventually looks very swollen. The child experiences pain when opening their mouth. In mild cases the swelling may only last three to four days, but it can go on for a week or more.

Mumps diagnosis

Usually the doctor makes the diagnosis based on the symptoms. Your GP on suspecting the diagnosis will notify your local health protection unit (HPU). The HPU will arrange for a sample of the patient’s saliva to be tested to confirm or rule out the diagnosis.

Mumps potential complications

Although the swollen parotid glands and high temperature caused by mumps may be unpleasant, the most serious repercussions involve possible infection of other organs:

  • Mumps and orchitis

In 20 to 30 per cent of the cases of adult men with mumps, the disease infects the testicles (orchitis) causing swelling, pain, soreness and a higher temperature. This often occurs about a week after the disease has broken out, and is a serious infection that may cause sterility.

However, among the few sexually mature men who contract mumps, only half get orchitis. Of these patients, only 10 per cent are affected in both testicles, and even then it does not necessarily cause sterility. If sterility occurs, there is still a chance that fertility may return.

Among the few sexually mature men who contract mumps, only half get orchitis.

Boys who have not reached puberty and are not sexually mature rarely get this kind of inflammation of the testicles. The risk of women contracting oophoritis – inflammation of the ovaries – is even smaller than inflammation of the testicles in men. However, should this happen, it has no effect on fertility. Inflammation of the pancreas (pancreatitis) is a recognised but uncommon complication.

  • Mumps and meningitis

A less rare complication of mumps is meningitis, which may appear 3 to 10 days after the onset of mumps.

This is an inflammation of the membranes of the brain or spinal cord. Meningitis is a serious disease, but in connection with mumps it is usually mild. However, it still requires close attention and special care of the patient. The symptoms of mumps-meningitis are:

  • Headache
  • Aversion to bright light
  • Possible vomiting
  • A stiff neck, leaving patients unable to touch their chest with their chin and causing the head to bend slightly backwards

Mumps treatment

Symptomatic treatment consists of the use of paracetamol and ibuprofen to relieve pain and reduce inflammation and swelling. Apart from staying in bed while the swelling and temperature is at its highest, mumps demands no special attention.

Treatment consists of paracetamol and ibuprofen to relieve pain and reduce swelling.

Prior to the development of a vaccine mumps was considered to be a part of growing up for many children. If the disease is contracted later in life, the risk of the unpleasant complications listed above is far greater.

Children can return to childcare institutions or school when they are feeling well and the swelling of the glands has subsided.

Mumps and vaccination

It is recommended that all children get the MMR vaccination, which contains a vaccine against mumps. This vaccine gives 95 per cent protection against mumps. The escalation in the number of mumps cases among young students is thought to be entirely due to these children having missed being vaccinated earlier in their life.

In the UK, the vaccine is offered to all children between 12 and 18 months, with a second booster dose before starting school between the ages of three and five.

It is recommended that all children get the MMR vaccination, which contains a vaccine against mumps.

In April 2013, following Measles outbreaks in Swansea, South Wales and other parts of the UK; the Government arranged a mass vaccination programme to try and catch the many thousands of children and adults born between 1980 and 1990 who had not been vaccinated against Measles, Mumps and Rubella when originally scheduled.

This lack of herd immunity occurred as a result of research published in 1998, which purported to show a relationship between the MMR vaccine and an increased risk of subsequently going on to develop Autism. This research has long since been discredited and a great deal of work done since then has shown no evidence that such a link exists.

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