Measles is a childhood infection caused by a virus. Once quite common, measles can now almost always be prevented with a vaccine. Signs and symptoms of measles include cough, runny nose, inflamed eyes, sore throat, fever and a red, blotchy skin rash. Also called rubeola, measles can be serious and even fatal for small children.
Measles signs and symptoms appear 10 to 14 days after exposure to the virus. Signs and symptoms of measles typically include:
- Dry cough
- Runny nose
- Sore throat
- Inflamed eyes (conjunctivitis)
- Tiny white spots with bluish-white centers on a red background found inside the mouth on the inner lining of the cheek — also called Koplik’s spots
- A skin rash made up of large, flat blotches that often flow into one another
When to see a doctor
Call your doctor if you think you or your child may have been exposed to measles or if you or your child has a rash resembling measles. Review your family’s immunization records with your doctor, especially before starting elementary school, before college and before international travel.
The cause of measles is a virus that replicates in the nose and throat of an infected child or adult.
When someone with measles coughs, sneezes or talks, infected droplets spray into the air, where other people can inhale them. The infected droplets may also land on a surface, where they remain active and contagious for several hours.
You can contract the virus by putting your fingers in your mouth or nose or rubbing your eyes after touching the infected surface.
Risk factors for measles include:
- Being unvaccinated.
- Traveling internationally.
- Having a vitamin A deficiency.
Complications of measles may include:
- Ear infection.
- Bronchitis, laryngitis or croup.
- Pneumonia is a common complication of measles.
- About 1 in 1,000 people with measles develops encephalitis.
- Pregnancy problems.
- Low platelet count (thrombocytopenia).
Tests and diagnosis
Your doctor can usually diagnose measles based on the disease’s characteristic rash as well as a small, bluish-white spot on a bright red background — Koplik’s spot — on the inside lining of the cheek. If necessary, a blood test can confirm whether the rash is truly measles.
Treatments and drugs
No treatment can get rid of an established measles infection. However, some measures can be taken to protect vulnerable individuals who have been exposed to the virus.
- Post-exposure vaccination. Nonimmunized people, including infants, may be given the measles vaccination within 72 hours of exposure to the measles virus to provide protection against the disease. If measles still develops, the illness usually has milder symptoms and lasts for a shorter time.
- Immune serum globulin. Pregnant women, infants and people with weakened immune systems who are exposed to the virus may receive an injection of proteins (antibodies) called immune serum globulin. When given within six days of exposure to the virus, these antibodies can prevent measles or make symptoms less severe.
- Fever reducers. You or your child may also take over-the-counter medications such as acetaminophen ibuprofen or naproxen to help relieve the fever that accompanies measles.
- If a bacterial infection, such as pneumonia or an ear infection, develops while you or your child has measles, your doctor may prescribe an antibiotic.
- Vitamin A. People with low levels of vitamin A are more likely to have a more severe case of measles. Giving vitamin A may lessen the severity of the measles. It’s generally given as a large dose of 200,000 international units (IU) for two days.
Lifestyle and home remedies
- Take it easy. Get rest and avoid busy activities.
- Sip something. Drink plenty of water, fruit juice and herbal tea to replace fluids lost by fever and sweating.
- Seek respiratory relief. Use a humidifier to relieve cough and sore throat.
- Rest your eyes.
If someone in your household has measles, take these precautions to protect vulnerable family and friends:
- Because measles is highly contagious from about four days before to four days after the rash breaks out, people with measles shouldn’t return to activities in which they interact with other people during this period.
It may also be necessary to keep nonimmunized people — siblings, for example — away from the infected person.
- Be sure that anyone who’s at risk of getting the measles who hasn’t been fully vaccinated receives the measles vaccine as soon as possible.