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Measles

Reviewed by: Kate M. Cronan, MD

What Is Measles?

Measles is a very contagious respiratory infection. It causes a total-body skin rash and flu-like symptoms. Measles is rare in the United States thanks to widespread immunization. But 20 million cases happen worldwide every year.

Measles (also called rubeola) is caused by a , so there's no specific medical treatment for it. The virus has to run its course. A child who is sick should drink plenty of fluids, get lots of rest, and stay home from school or daycare to prevent spreading the infection.

What Are the Signs & Symptoms of Measles?

The first symptoms of a measles infection are usually a hacking cough, runny nose, high fever, and red eyes. Kids also may have Koplik's spots (small red spots with blue-white centers) inside the mouth before the rash starts.

measles_illustration

The rash breaks out 3–5 days after symptoms start, sometimes along with a high fever up to 104°F (40°C). The red or reddish-brown rash usually begins as flat red spots on the forehead. It spreads to the rest of the face, then down the neck and torso to the arms, legs, and feet. The fever and rash slowly go away after a few days.

Is Measles Contagious?

Measles is very contagious. In fact, 9 out of 10 people who aren't vaccinated for measles will get it if they are near an infected person.

How Do People Get Measles?

Measles spreads when people breathe in or have direct contact with virus-infected fluid. It can pass through droplets sprayed into the air when someone with measles sneezes or coughs. Someone exposed to the virus might not show symptoms until 8–10 days later.

People with measles can spread the disease from 4 days before the rash starts until about 4 days after that. They're most contagious while they have a fever, runny nose, and cough. Those with weakened immune systems due to other conditions (like HIV and AIDS) can spread the measles virus until they recover.

How Is Measles Treated?

There is no specific medical treatment for measles. To help manage symptoms:

  • give your child plenty of fluids
  • encourage extra rest
  • give a non-aspirin fever medicine, such as acetaminophen or ibuprofen if a fever makes your child uncomfortable. Never give aspirin to a child who has a viral illness, as such use is linked to Reye syndrome.

Kids with measles should be closely watched by a doctor. In some cases, measles can lead to other complications, such as:

Children with measles should be kept away from others for 4 days after their rash appears. For those with a weakened immune system, this should continue until they make a full recovery and all symptoms are gone.

How Long Does Measles Last?

A measles infection can last for several weeks. Most people won't have symptoms until 10–14 days after exposure to the virus.

Can Measles Be Prevented?

The best way to protect your kids is to make sure they're immunized against measles.

For most kids, measles protection is part of the measles-mumps-rubella vaccine (MMR) or measles-mumps-rubella-varicella vaccine (MMRV) given when they're 12 to 15 months old and again when they're 4 to 6 years old.

It's important for all kids who can get the vaccine to get it on schedule. At-risk people (such as those with weakened immune systems) can't get the vaccine and depend on "herd immunity." This is when a lot of people are immunized against a disease, which prevents it from spreading and helps prevent outbreaks.

What Else Should I Know?

Measles is now very rare in the United States. But before measles vaccination was available, every year:

  • more than 500,000 cases were reported
  • about 500 people died
  • around 4,000 people developed encephalitis

Widespread immunization brought U.S. measles cases down to a low of 37 people in 2004. But outbreaks do still happen:

  • In 2017, 118 people were reported to have measles.
  • During the first 4 months of 2018, 63 people were diagnosed with measles.

Most of the people who got measles were not vaccinated.

Those at highest risk during an outbreak are:

  • infants who aren't old enough to get the vaccine
  • pregnant women
  • people with poor nutrition or weakened immune systems

If they have contact with someone who has measles, doctors can give an injection of measles antibodies (called immune globulin). It's most effective when given within 6 days of contact. These antibodies can either prevent measles or make symptoms less severe.

The measles vaccine may offer some protection to women who are not pregnant and people not in an at-risk group if given within 72 hours of measles exposure.

When Should I Call the Doctor?

Call the doctor right away if you think that your child has measles. Also call if your child was around someone who has measles, especially if your child:

  • is an infant
  • is taking medicines that suppress the immune system
  • has tuberculosis, cancer, or a disease that affects the immune system
Reviewed by: Kate M. Cronan, MD
Date reviewed: May 2018