Medically Reviewed by Jabeen Begum, MD on May 06, 2024
9 min read

Mumps is an infection caused by a virus. It's easily spread through saliva (spit) and mucus, the sticky fluid found in your nose and throat. Kids who haven't had a vaccine to prevent mumps are most likely to get it. 

Although mumps can affect any part of your body, it mostly infects the saliva-making glands below and in front of your ears (called parotid glands). Those glands then start to swell, which is why puffy cheeks and a swollen jaw are the telltale signs of mumps.

This illness used to be a lot more common. But since the measles, mumps, and rubella (MMR) vaccine was invented in 1967, mumps is seen much less often in the U.S.

Mumps is caused by a virus called a paramyxovirus. It spreads the same way as the flu and common cold.

Is mumps contagious?

It’s very easy to catch the mumps virus if you come in contact with tiny droplets of an infected person's saliva or mucus.

For instance, a sick person could pass it on to you through:

  • Coughing, sneezing, or talking close to you
  • Kissing
  • Sharing items you eat or drink from, such as a cup, water bottle, fork, or spoon
  • Not washing their hands well and touching items that you and other people then touch
  • Coming into close contact with you during a sport

In the U.S., mumps outbreaks are most likely to happen in places where you spend a lot of time in crowded spaces with others, like sleepaway camps or colleges.

Mumps incubation period

So what happens after you're exposed to the mumps virus?

You won't feel sick right away. It usually takes between 12 and 25 days before you notice any symptoms. This time between when you become infected and when you start to feel sick is called an incubation period.
How long does mumps last?
The mumps virus usually lasts about 2 weeks. If your child has it, they can probably return to school or day care once they feel better and at least 1 week has passed since their symptoms began. But check with your doctor to make sure.

The classic signs are pain and swelling in your face and jaw. A few days before that, you may notice other mumps symptoms, including:

  • Fatigue (feeling tired for no reason)
  • Fever
  • Headache
  • Loss of appetite
  • Muscle aches or joint pain
  • Weakness
  • Dry mouth
  • Mild belly pain
  • Trouble chewing
  • Swollen tongue
  • Testicle pain or tenderness
  • Ear pain

You could also feel like you have a cold. And it's possible to be infected with mumps and not have any symptoms at all. This happens to about one-third of people with mumps. But even if you feel fine, you can still pass the mumps virus on to others.

Signs to go to the ER

If you notice any of these symptoms, seek emergency care:

  • Trouble breathing
  • Trouble staying awake
  • Dehydration (babies and young kids are most at risk -- the signs include no tears when they cry, no wet diapers for 3 hours, and seeming tired or lacking energy)

Mumps is most common in kids, but you can catch it at any age.

If you're an adult and haven't had mumps or a mumps vaccine, talk to your doctor. Based on your health history, they'll likely suggest you have at least one dose of the MMR vaccine now to protect yourself.

Getting mumps while you're pregnant usually doesn't harm your baby. But rarely, it can lead to:

  • Miscarriage
  • Premature birth (having your baby before your due date)
  • Low birth weight
  • Birth defects
  • Stillbirth

Any risk to your baby may be greatest if you get mumps during your first trimester. But no matter what stage of pregnancy you're in, if you've been exposed to mumps, tell your doctor right away.

Mumps in babies

It's rare to see mumps in babies younger than 1 year. That's because if you're vaccinated, you pass on some protection to your baby during your pregnancy. They'll get some of your antibodies (special proteins that your immune system uses to fight off mumps), although these only last about a year That's why your baby will be scheduled for their first mumps vaccine after 12 months.

If your baby does catch mumps, you may not know it. As many as 30% of babies who are infected with mumps don't have any symptoms. But if your baby shows any signs of not feeling well, call your doctor right away.

If you think you have mumps or have been around someone who has, see your doctor to get tested. If you do have it, there’s no mumps medication you can take. That’s because antibiotics don’t work on a virus. You have to simply let it run its course. Talk to your doctor about what you can do to manage your or your child’s symptoms.

Some general tips that can help:

  • Apply gentle heat or ice to your swollen glands. See which one helps ease your pain the most.
  • Use ice packs on swollen testicles. You could also apply a cool washcloth.
  • Drink lots of fluids. Avoid acidic drinks such as orange and grapefruit juice. They could be painful to swallow.
  • Eat soft foods. Chewing hard or sticky foods will increase any pain in your jaw. Instead, try soup or mashed potatoes.
  • Rest. Sleep helps your immune system fight off infection.
  • Take over-the-counter, non-aspirin pain relievers. Don't give ibuprofen to a child younger than 6 months unless your doctor tells you to. Children should never be given aspirin. It's been linked to a rare but serious brain disease called Reye's syndrome.
  • Stay home. Keep your distance from others for at least 5 days after your glands first become swollen.

If your symptoms don't improve after a week, call your doctor.

It doesn’t happen often, but mumps can lead to severe health issues. That's more likely to happen if you're not vaccinated. Complications are also more common in adults than in kids.

Mumps can cause:

Arthritis. The mumps virus can cause your joints to become swollen and achy. This usually clears up once you start feeling better.

Inflamed testicles. This painful condition, called orchitis, is more common after puberty. It may cause one or both of your testicles to swell and then shrink. It could also decrease your fertility, although that could be a short-term side effect.

Swollen ovaries. Also called oophoritis, this condition may cause symptoms such as severe nausea, pain, and fever. It's often mistaken for appendicitis.

Painful breasts. Before the mumps vaccine, up to 30% of people assigned female at birth (AFAB) got a painful inflammation of breast tissue called mastitis. Now, less than 1% of people get mastitis because of the mumps vaccine.

Pancreatitis. Your pancreas helps you digest food and control your blood sugar. Mumps can inflame this organ, which can lead to pain in your belly, throwing up, and fever.

Meningitis. Inflammation in the membrane that covers your brain and spinal cord can cause symptoms such as fever and stiff head and neck. Up to 10% of people with mumps who have swelling in their jaw and neck go on to have meningitis.

Hearing loss. Some people with mumps lose their hearing. It can return once you recover, or it may be permanent.

Encephalitis. 1 in 1,000 people with mumps will get inflammation in their brain. Encephalitis can cause seizures and coma (losing consciousness) and can be life-threatening.

Mumps can also cause issues with your eyes, thyroid, kidneys, and heart.

The best way to protect yourself from mumps is to get the mumps vaccine. There are two different options.

MMR. This can protect kids and adults from measles, mumps, or rubella.

MMRV. This vaccine is only given to kids. It protects against chickenpox, as well as measles, mumps, and rubella.

The CDC recommends kids get two doses of the MMR vaccine. They should get the first at 12-15 months old and the second when they are 4-6 years old. The MMRV vaccine can be given as the second shot, but your child's doctor will make that call.

If you're a teen or adult and aren't sure if you're up to date on your MMR vaccine, talk to your doctor. They can check your immunization record and tell you. If they don't have that information on file, they may suggest you repeat the vaccine. They could also order some labwork first. Some tests can show if you're immune to mumps because you had the vaccine or were sick with mumps as a child.

Can you get mumps twice?

If you've had mumps, you usually can't catch it again. Once your body is exposed to the virus, it builds up an immunity that lasts for life.

Mumps vaccine

Getting the recommended two doses of the MMR vaccine makes you nine times less likely to be infected with mumps; even if you do get sick, your symptoms should be very mild.

Many studies in the U.S. and other countries show that the MMR vaccine is safe. One study done in 1998 appeared to show that the shot was linked to autism. But the study was later found to contain many important mistakes. Because of that, the medical journal that published the study withdrew it.

Organizations such as the CDC and the American Academy of Pediatrics have also looked into this claim and found that there's no proof that the MMR vaccine causes autism.

Common side effects from the MMR vaccine are similar to what you might notice with other shots. They're usually mild and can include:

  • Rash
  • Fever
  • Soreness around the injection site (where the shot went in)

Although it's rare, you could have an allergic reaction to the MMR vaccine. Call your doctor right away if you or your child start to have any of these symptoms:

  • Trouble breathing
  • Wheezing
  • Changes in your skin tone
  • Feeling tired for no reason

Before your child or you get the MMR vaccine, it's important to let your doctor know about:

  • Any previous side effects or bad reactions to the MMR vaccine
  • Any other shots you've had in the past month
  • All medications and supplements you take
  • Any seizures or family history of seizures
  • Any recent blood transfusion or blood product (such as plasma) that you've had
  • Any ongoing health condition you have

Let your doctor know how you or your child feels on the day of your shot. While you can usually still get the MMR vaccine if you have a mild illness (such as a cold), your doctor may want you to reschedule if you're dealing with a more serious health issue.

It's not advised to get the mumps vaccine while you're pregnant or if you think you may be pregnant.

Prevent the spread of mumps

If you or your child do get mumps, try to prevent passing it on to others, You can:

  • Wash your hands well, especially before and after you help your sick child.
  • Urge everyone in your home to wash their hands often, especially before and after meals.
  • Don't share water bottles, plates, cups, or utensils.
  • Throw away tissues into the trash so other people don't accidentally touch them.
  • Regularly clean "high touch" surfaces such as door knobs, light switches, and sink faucets.
  • Clean or wash your sick child's toys.

Mumps is a highly contagious virus that infects the glands in front of your ears but can travel throughout your body. It can be easily prevented with a vaccine. While most cases of mumps are mild and go away on their own, severe complications can sometimes happen.