By Claire GagneUpdated Feb 28, 2019
1. What is it? Mumps is a viral infection of the parotid gland. “It’s a little gland that lives in front and below each ear. The gland normally makes saliva, but it can be infected with a virus,” says Julia Orkin, a paediatrician at Toronto’s Hospital for Sick Children.
The mumps virus is spread by droplets of saliva or secretions from the nose. Things like sneezing on someone, or sharing a glass, could spread the virus.
2. Is it serious? Symptoms of mumps are often mild, and some kids will get the virus but not have any symptoms at all. Others get fever, pain and tenderness underneath the ear. About 70 percent of kids with mumps will get the telltale painful swelling below the ear and across the jaw, says Orkin.
The concern with mumps is that it can lead to meningitis, which is the swelling of the membranes around your brain and spinal cord, and is very serious.
3. My kid’s been vaccinated—is she at risk? In short, no, says Orkin. Doctors now give Canadian children two doses of the MMR vaccine, which protects against mumps, measles and rubella. The first dose is typically given at age 1, and the second dose is given sometime before the child goes to school (it varies by province).
“We require two vaccines against the condition, because over time your levels of immunity could decrease,” says Orkin.
The Public Health Agency of Canada says there has been a 99 percent reduction in the number of mumps cases since routine vaccination was introduced.
Orkin says that if your child has had her two doses of the vaccine, she is considered protected. But if you have any concerns, you could talk to your doctor.
4. But my child is under 1 and can’t get the vaccine yet. What do I do? Most doctors or midwives will check your immunity levels to mumps (as well as measles and rubella) during your pregnancy. If your levels were good, you have likely passed some antibodies on to your baby that will offer some protection in those first few months of life. If your levels were low, you were likely offered a booster after delivery. This would protect you from getting the virus, which would in turn protect your baby from catching it from you.
But, says Orkin, this is one of the reasons why it’s so important for everybody to get the vaccine once they are old enough. “If everybody is immunized at one year, then the likelihood of getting measles, mumps and rubella before one year is very low. So those babies who are not eligible for the MMR vaccine yet are covered because the majority of the population is protected.” This is referred to as “herd immunity.”
5. When should I be concerned? If your child isn’t vaccinated against mumps and has any of the symptoms, you should see a doctor immediately, says Orkin. If any child has a fever with swelling around the ear or jaw, and tenderness while chewing, you should also bring them in for an assessment.
There is no specific treatment for mumps—your doctor will recommend pain management. Plus, it’s important to make sure your child is staying hydrated and eating well. If a secondary complication like meningitis occurs, that needs to be addressed right away. The symptoms of meningitis include high fever, lethargy confusion, vomiting and headaches.
6. My kid has mumps—what do I do? If your child has mumps you need to keep him away from other children and anyone who hasn’t been vaccinated. Symptoms often take several days to a few weeks to appear, and a person stays contagious until the swelling goes down, which is about a week.
7. Why are we seeing outbreaks now? Many of the cases of mumps we’re seeing now are in teenagers and young adults. Previously, Canadian children only got one dose of the mumps vaccine. If you’re not sure if you are immune, check with your doctor and consider getting a booster. Toronto Public Health recommends people born between 1970 and 1992 get a booster shot of the MMR vaccine if you have not had one.
According to the Public Health Agency of Canada, adults born before 1970 are considered immune because they have likely already had mumps. Like chickenpox, once you get the virus, you don’t get it again.