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Measles, also known as Rubeola, is a highly contagious virus that can be life-threatening for those who haven’t received their measles vaccine. This is especially true for babies and children. Learn about measles signs and symptoms, how deadly the virus can be and how to prevent it with recommended vaccinations. 

How Deadly is Measles?

According to the Centers for Disease Control (CDC) and Prevention, before the measles vaccination was widely available, an estimated 3 to 4 million people got measles each year in the United States, of which 500,000 were reported. From the 500,000 reported cases, 400 to 500 people died, 48,000 were hospitalized and 1,000 developed encephalitis (brain swelling) from measles.

How Does Measles Spread?

Measles is a viral disease that is highly contagious. The measles virus spreads through direct contact with respiratory droplets or through the air when the person with measles talks, coughs or sneezes. Indoors, these droplets can linger in the air for up to two hours. People who aren’t vaccinated against measles can catch the virus by breathing the contaminated air or touching a surface where the droplets landed and then touching their eyes, nose or mouth.

If you’re unvaccinated and were exposed to measles, you have a 90% chance of catching it.

Measles Signs and Symptoms

Measles symptoms can appear between 7-14 days after exposure. Signs and symptoms include:

  • Fever: The earliest sign is typically a high fever that may last for several days.
  • Cough: It’s usually dry with a hacking sound.
  • Runny nose and red eyes: Sneezing and watery eyes are common.
  • Sore throat: Like with other viruses, a sore throat can occur.
  • Koplik spots: Small, white spots with a blue-ish white center develop in the mouth a few days before the measles rash appears.
  • Skin rash: The rash tends to appear 3-5 days after onset of fever.

What Does the Measles Rash Look Like?

The measles rash looks like flat, red spots that first appear on the face and then spread all over the body. The rash turns brown before it disappears. The spots may be slightly raised as they progress and can sometimes merge together.

In addition to these symptoms, measles can also cause diarrhea, ear infections, pneumonia, brain inflammation (encephalitis) and other serious complications. Call your doctor right away if you learn you’ve been exposed.

How is Measles Diagnosed?

Anyone who hasn’t received their measles vaccine can get measles. Your healthcare provider can diagnose whether you or a family member has been infected with measles based on a few things:

  • Reviewing your medical history
  • A physical exam
  • Blood test
  • Nose or throat swab
  • Urine test

Measles Treatment

Measles does not have a cure. The virus typically stays in the body between 10 – 14 days. If you become infected with measles, treatments are available are to help reduce the severity of symptoms. There are several things you can do at home to try to find some relief:

  • Take acetaminophen or ibuprofen to help lower fevers and relieve muscle aches and pains. Talk to your healthcare provider before giving a child or teen aspirin due to the risk of Reye’s syndrome, a rare but life-threatening condition.
  • Drink plenty of fluids, such as water, broth and electrolytes, to help prevent dehydration.
  • Use a cool mist humidifier to soothe a cough.
  • Stay isolated from others for at least four days after the rash appears to prevent the virus from spreading to others.
  • Get plenty of rest.
  • If a bacterial infection subsequently develops, such as pneumonia, antibiotics may be prescribed. However, antibiotics are not effective against measles itself, because it’s a virus.
  • In severe cases, hospitalization is needed for life-threatening complications such as brain inflammation and respiratory failure.

If an unvaccinated person is exposed to someone with measles, they should call their healthcare provider. Post-exposure treatment can be utilized to help prevent disease or modify the severity of the disease. An MMR vaccine is given, if within 72 hours of exposure, or an immunoglobulin (antibody) transfusion, if within 6 days of exposure.

Preventing Measles

The most effective way to prevent measles is through vaccination with the MMR (measles, mumps, rubella) vaccine. The Centers for Disease Control (CDC) and Prevention recommend:

  • First dose at 12-15 months
  • Second dose at 4-6 years old

The vaccine is both safe and effective. In fact, two doses are about 97% effective at preventing measles infection. Common side effects from the MMR vaccine include a fever, mild rash or swollen lymph nodes. Severe side effects are rare.

Health authorities such as the CDC and World Health Organization (WHO) recommend children receive both doses to prevent outbreaks and serious complications such as brain inflammation, deafness and birth defects.

In addition, all U.S. residents traveling internationally, regardless of destination, should be current on their MMR vaccine. Many of the recent cases were linked to international travel. Infants traveling overseas have slightly different vaccine recommendations.