What is it?
Mumps is a viral infection that primarily affects the parotid glands — one of three pairs of salivary glands, located below and in front of your ears. If you or your child contracts mumps, it can cause swelling in one or both parotid glands.
Complications of mumps are potentially serious, but rare — and your odds of contracting mumps aren't very high. Mumps was common until the mumps vaccine was licensed in the 1960s. Since then, the number of cases has dropped dramatically.
Up to 1 in 5 people infected with the mumps virus has no signs or symptoms. When signs and symptoms do develop, they usually appear about two to three weeks after exposure to the virus and may include:
- Swollen, painful salivary glands on one or both sides of your face
- Pain with chewing or swallowing
- Weakness and fatigue
The primary — and best known — sign of mumps is swollen salivary glands that cause the cheeks to puff out. In fact, the term "mumps" is an old expression for lumps or bumps within the cheeks.
The cause of mumps is the mumps virus, which spreads easily from person to person through infected saliva. If you're not immune, you can contract mumps by breathing in saliva droplets of an infected person who has just sneezed or coughed. You can also contract mumps from sharing utensils or cups with someone who has mumps. Mumps is about as contagious as the flu (influenza).
Complications of mumps are potentially serious, but rare. These include:
- Orchitis. This inflammatory condition causes swelling of one or both testicles. Orchitis is painful, but it rarely leads to sterility — the inability to father a child.
- Pancreatitis. This is swelling of the pancreas. Signs and symptoms of pancreatitis include pain in the upper abdomen, nausea and vomiting.
- Encephalitis. A viral infection, such as mumps, can lead to inflammation of the brain (encephalitis). Encephalitis can lead to neurological problems and become life-threatening. Although it's serious, encephalitis is a rare complication of mumps.
- Meningitis. Meningitis is infection and inflammation of the membranes and fluid surrounding the brain and spinal cord. It can occur if the mumps virus spreads through your bloodstream to infect your central nervous system. Like encephalitis, meningitis is a rare complication of mumps.
- Inflammation of the ovaries. Pain in the lower abdomen in females may be a symptom of this problem. Fertility is rarely affected.
- Hearing loss. In rare cases, mumps can cause hearing loss, usually permanent, in one or both ears.
- Miscarriage. Contracting mumps while you're pregnant, especially early on, can lead to miscarriage.
If your doctor suspects that you or your child has mumps, a virus culture or a blood test may be needed. The blood test can detect mumps antibodies, which indicate whether this is a recent or past infection.