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Swollen salivary glands might mean mumps

The best way to prevent mumps is to get vaccinated.

Mumps is a usually mild viral disease that was once common in infants, children and young adults. Once routine vaccination started, cases of the disease dwindled. By 2003, just a few hundred a year were reported, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC). But cases and outbreaks have been on the upswing since 2006.

For example, two large outbreaks occurred from 2009 to 2010 and involved more than 3,500 people. From January 2016 to June 2017, 150 outbreaks occurred, involving 9,200 people.

Symptoms

In some cases, the symptoms of mumps are so mild that the person never realizes they had the illness. When noticeable symptoms do occur, they usually start 16 to 18 days after infection. The most common symptoms include:

  • Fever.
  • Headache.
  • Muscle aches.
  • Fatigue.
  • Loss of appetite.
  • Swollen salivary glands (under the ears). The pain may be worse when swallowing, talking, chewing, or drinking juices that are acidic, such as orange juice.

More severe symptoms can develop in some people and are more common in adults than children. According to CDC, about 30% of unvaccinated and 6% of vaccinated postpubescent boys and men with mumps develop painful, swollen testicles. Less than 1% of adolescent girls and adult women with mumps develop painful, swollen breasts (mastitis). 

Less common complications include inflammation of the ovaries, inflammation of the brain (encephalitis) or the tissue around the brain and spinal cord (meningitis), and deafness. For women in the first trimester of pregnancy, a mumps infection may cause miscarriage.

Treatment

Mumps can't be cured with medicine. It's caused by a virus, so it cannot be treated with antibiotics. The symptoms usually clear up on their own in about 10 days.

The American Academy of Family Physicians offers these suggestions for relieving the symptoms:

  • Use acetaminophen or ibuprofen to reduce fever and relieve pain. Unless your child's doctor says so, don't give your child aspirin. Giving aspirin to young children can cause Reye's syndrome, a disease that affects the brain and other internal organs.
  • Apply either warm or cold packs—whichever feels better—to soothe swollen salivary glands.
  • Stick to a soft, bland diet with plenty of fluids.

If symptoms are severe, call the doctor.

Keep it to yourself

Mumps spreads through saliva droplets and nasal mucus, usually when people cough or sneeze. The virus can also spread through surfaces that have been touched by an infected person, such as toys, counters and doorknobs.

To avoid spreading the disease, CDC recommends that any person with mumps stays home from child care, school or work for at least five days after swollen glands appear.

Prevention

The best way to prevent mumps is to get vaccinated. The vaccine is recommended for all children, as part of the mumps-measles-rubella (MMR) immunizations. The first dose is recommended between ages 12 months and 15 months, and the second dose between ages 4 and 6. Some babies younger than 12 months old who will travel overseas should be vaccinated too.

For teenagers and adults who have not been vaccinated and never had mumps, the CDC also recommends:

  • Two doses of the vaccine for students attending college or other post-secondary schools, workers in healthcare facilities, and people who will travel abroad.
  • At least one dose for adults born in 1957 or later if they don't have laboratory proof of immunity, documentation that they've had mumps in the past, or a medical reason not to be vaccinated.

Exceptions include pregnant women and women who may become pregnant within four weeks. Some people should talk to their doctor before getting vaccinated—this includes people with weakened immune systems, people with cancer, and those who recently had a blood transfusion or other blood products.

Good hygiene also helps protect people from mumps and other infections:

  • Wash your hands often and thoroughly with warm, soapy water—teach your children to do the same.
  • Don't share eating utensils.
  • Regularly clean surfaces such as toys, doorknobs, tables and counters.

Reviewed 11/11/2022

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