Measles is a very contagious (easily spread) illness caused by a virus.
Measles is spread by contact with droplets from the nose, mouth, or throat of an infected person. Sneezing and coughing can put contaminated droplets into the air.
If one person has the measles, 90% of the people who come in contact with that person will get the measles, unless they have been vaccinated.
People who had measles or who have been vaccinated against measles are protected from the disease. As of 2000, measles had been eliminated in the United States. However, unvaccinated people who travel to other countries where measles is common have brought the disease back to the United States. This has led to recent outbreaks of measles in groups of people who are unvaccinated.
Some parents DO NOT let their children get vaccinated. This is because of unfounded fears that the MMR vaccine, which protects against measles, mumps, and rubella, can cause autism. Parents and caregivers should know that:
- Large studies of thousands of children have found no connection between this or any vaccine and autism.
- Reviews by all major health organizations in the United States, Great Britain, and elsewhere all found NO LINK between the MMR vaccine and autism.
- The study that had first reported a risk of autism from this vaccine has been proven to be fraudulent.
Symptoms usually begin 8 to 12 days after you are exposed to the virus. This is called the incubation period.
Rash is often the main symptom. The rash:
- Usually appears 3 to 5 days after the first signs of being sick
- May last 4 to 7 days
- Usually starts on the head and spreads to other areas, moving down the body
- May appear as flat, discolored areas (macules) and solid, red, raised areas (papules) that later join together
Other symptoms may include:
- Bloodshot eyes
- Light sensitivity (photophobia)
- Muscle pain
- Red and inflammed eyes (conjunctivitis)
- Runny nose
- Sore throat
- Tiny white spots inside the mouth (Koplik's spots)
Exams and Tests
The health care provider will perform a physical exam and ask about symptoms. Usually the diagnosis is easily made from the telltale rash and Koplik's spots.
If needed, blood tests may be done.
There is no specific treatment for the measles.
The following may relieve symptoms:
- Acetaminophen (Tylenol)
- Bed rest
- Humidified air
Some children may need vitamin A supplements, which reduce the risk of death and complications in children who DO NOT get enough vitamin A.
Those who DO NOT have complications such as pneumonia do very well.
Complications of measles infection may include:
- Irriation and swelling of the main passages that carry air to the lungs (bronchitis)
- Irritation and swelling of the brain (encephalitis)
- Ear infection (otitis media)
When to Contact a Medical Professional
Call your provider if you or your child has symptoms of measles.
Getting vaccinated is a very effective way to prevent measles. People who are not immunized, or who have not received the full immunization, are at high risk of catching the disease.
Taking serum immune globulin within 6 days after being exposed to the virus can reduce the risk of developing measles or make the disease less severe.
Gershon AA. Measles virus (rubeola). In: Bennett JE, Dolin R, Blaser MJ, eds. Mandell, Douglas, and Bennett's Principles and Practice of Infectious Diseases, Updated Edition. 8th ed. Philadelphia, PA: Elsevier Saunders; 2015:chap 162.
Mason WH. Measles. In: Kliegman RM, Stanton BF, St. Geme JW, Schor NF, eds. Nelson Textbook of Pediatrics. 20th ed. Philadelphia, PA: Elsevier; 2016:chap 246.
Reviewed By: Neil K. Kaneshiro, MD, MHA, Clinical Assistant Professor of Pediatrics, University of Washington School of Medicine, Seattle, WA. Also reviewed by David Zieve, MD, MHA, Isla Ogilvie, PhD, and the A.D.A.M. Editorial team.