Mumps, a viral infection that used to be quite common but whose occurrence has declined in recent decades due to the widespread use of the MMR vaccine, most often affects children, usually between the ages of 5 and 14. Although serious complications are rare, they are possible, and the illness is quite contagious, so appropriate treatment is important.
Mumps spreads easily through the transfer of saliva, which includes tiny particles that others can inhale during conversation. Children, who may share drinks, utensils, and food, as well as regularly put their hands in their mouths, or forget to cover the mouths when coughing or sneezing, make it easy to spread mumps around.
Mumps, which is recognizable by the distinct swelling in the cheeks by the salivary glands, also comes with some nondescript flulike symptoms: fever, fatigue, headache, chills, nausea, and difficulty chewing or swallowing. The pain, tenderness, and swelling of the glands may not appear until a week or two after being infected, so it’s possible for a correct diagnosis to be delayed.
Because it’s contagious, it’s important for kids to be kept home from school and other activities until they’ve recovered; contagiousness lasts from 2 days before symptoms occur until 6 days after they’ve faded. It usually takes between 10 and 12 days for an infection to clear up. The good news is that mumps is usually pretty easily treated at home: bed rest and lots of fluids are the most important — and effective — steps. Because it’s caused by a virus, antibiotics aren’t an option, but over the counter pain relievers like ibuprofen can help ease pain, aches, and fever. A soft, bland diet may be most comfortable since it requires less chewing and won’t aggravate any nausea; avoid caffeinated, sugary, or acidic beverages and stick to water, tea, or sports drinks.
If you suspect your child has mumps, let your doctor know so that they can notify the appropriate medical authorities who track mumps outbreaks; they may also want to keep your child in a separate waiting room if you bring them in for an exam. Unless there are severe symptoms, they’ll likely advise home treatment, but if you notice more serious signs — abdominal pain, testicular pain, a stiff neck, difficulty hearing, changes in consciousness including extreme sleepiness, consult your doctor.