Mumps is a viral infection that usually causes swelling of the salivary glands (the glands that produce the digestive juices in the mouth). Thanks to the MMR (measles, mumps, and rubella) vaccine given at twelve to fifteen months and a booster at age four to six years, most of today’s children will never get this disease. The importance of routine vaccination to protect against mumps became particularly clear in 2005–2006. At this time an infected tourist from the United Kingdom brought the disease to Iowa, where an outbreak occurred involving several hundred individuals in not only Iowa but also in nearby states.
If your child has not been immunized, you should know how to identify mumps and distinguish it from similar ailments. The parotid gland, located in front of the ear at and above the angle of the jaw, is the one most often affected by mumps. However, other salivary glands in and around the face may be involved. Although not all children with mumps appear swollen (in milder cases), anyone who has the virus in his system will become immune to it.
The mumps virus is transmitted when an infected individual (like the one from the UK mentioned above) coughs droplets containing the virus into the air or onto his hands. A nearby child can inhale these particles, and the virus can pass through his respiratory system into his bloodstream, finally settling in his salivary glands. At this point, the virus usually causes swelling of the glands along the side of one or both cheeks. The child also may have a fever for three to five days, and will complain of pain when touching the swollen area, when opening his mouth, and while eating food—especially foods that stimulate the release of salivary juices. He also may experience nausea, occasional vomiting, headache, a general feeling of weakness, and loss of appetite. In addition to the swelling of the salivary glands, there also can be swelling and pain in the joints and, in boys, swelling of the testes. In extremely rare cases, the virus can cause swelling of the brain in boys or girls, or swelling of the ovaries in girls. Several days before the glands become noticeably swollen, the child with mumps will become infectious to others. He’ll remain infectious until the swelling is gone—that is, for at least ten days after the first sign of inflammation. It’s important to note that salivary gland swelling can be caused by infections other than mumps. This explains why some parents are convinced that their children have had the disease more than once. If your child has been immunized or already has had mumps and his cheeks become swollen, consult your pediatrician to determine the cause.
There is no specific treatment for mumps, aside from making the child as comfortable as possible with rest, lots of fluids, and acetaminophen for fever. Although a child with the disease may not be too eager to take fluids, you should keep a glass of water or noncitrus juice nearby, and encourage him to take frequent sips. Sometimes a warm compress over the swollen gland will give some short term relief. Eating solid, hard-to-digest foods may cause your child increased pain because they require extra saliva from the swollen glands. Instead, feed him soft, noncitrus foods that are easy to chew and swallow and that place minimal demands on the inflamed glands. If your child’s condition worsens, or if he develops complications such as painful testes, severe abdominal pain, or extreme listlessness, contact your pediatrician right away. The doctor will want to examine your child to see if he needs more extensive medical treatment. However, such complications from mumps are extremely rare.