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What is Mumps?

Mary McMahon
Updated May 17, 2024
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Mumps is an infectious viral disease which classically causes an inflammation of the parotid glands, also known as the saliva glands. Since 1967, this disease has been fully preventable through vaccination, so it is relatively unusual to see a case of mumps in a country with thorough vaccination coverage. In North America and Europe, for example, mumps is often on the list of vaccinations required to attend school. In developing nations, however, cases do occur, due to the inability to access needed vaccines.

The disease is caused by a paramyxovirus, a type of RNA virus. Several other infectious diseases are caused by paramyxoviruses; mumps is in the rubulavirus genus, along with the Tioman virus, a virus which causes a swelling of the brain known as encephalopathy. The virus is harbored in the saliva of the patient, and it is passed through coughing, sneezing, or other contact with saliva. The disease is highly contagious, with symptoms appearing around two weeks after exposure.

The first sign of mumps is often a high fever accompanied with a headache. The saliva glands swell shortly thereafter, and in some cases the patient may experience swelling of the reproductive organs and pancreas. In male patients, swelling of the testicles can be quite painful, and it may lead to sterility. The disease generally does not kill, although in some cases it can cause an inflammation of the brain and spinal cord, which will be fatal if not treated.

Treatment generally relies on letting the disease run its course while the patient is monitored to ensure that more serious symptoms do not emerge. It is important to keep the patient fed and hydrated, although the swelling around the mouth may make eating difficult. Soft foods like smoothies and yogurts are a good choice. A doctor may also recommend aspirin for the pain, although aspirin should not be offered to very young children without a doctor's approval, as it has been linked with health conditions like Reye's syndrome.

The formal name is “epidemic parotitis,” a reference to the infectiousness of the disease, along with the tendency to swell the parotid glands. “Mumps” comes from an Old English word which means “swelling.” Generally, mumps is preventable through a childhood vaccination and a booster shot approximately three years later. People who are traveling or living in close conditions with others may want to consider an additional booster shot to ensure that they are immune. If you have already been infected, you will be immune to it in the future.

WiseGeek is dedicated to providing accurate and trustworthy information. We carefully select reputable sources and employ a rigorous fact-checking process to maintain the highest standards. To learn more about our commitment to accuracy, read our editorial process.
Mary McMahon
By Mary McMahon

Ever since she began contributing to the site several years ago, Mary has embraced the exciting challenge of being a WiseGeek researcher and writer. Mary has a liberal arts degree from Goddard College and spends her free time reading, cooking, and exploring the great outdoors.

Discussion Comments
By geronimo8 — On Feb 19, 2011

I am so thankful for the vaccines we have today. Mumps does not sound pleasant, and I am glad that I will never have to suffer through it.

It's definitely worth the shot for the mumps vaccine. And as hard as it is to watch our children get shots, it would be a lot harder to watch them suffer through something like mumps.

By upnorth31 — On Feb 18, 2011

I always get the mumps confused with the measles. I suppose I should be thankful for that, considering it is a result of the fact that I am lucky enough to live in a place, and during a time, in which people usually don't get either one.

Now that I know that mumps means swelling, I will be less likely to get them confused. I don't know why, but whenever I heard the word mumps before, I would picture someone with spots all over them.

Mary McMahon
Mary McMahon

Ever since she began contributing to the site several years ago, Mary has embraced the exciting challenge of being a...

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