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 is starting to see a rise in cases due to anti-vaccination parents.

Protecting Yourself and Family from Measles

What is measles?

Measles is a very contagious viral illness. It's also known as rubeola. It causes a distinct rash and a fever. Measles is spread through direct contact with droplets from coughs or sneezes from a person with measles. Although not as common, it can be spread by droplets in the air. The symptoms of measles happen about 7 to 14 days after coming in contact with a person with the virus.

Measles is felt to be one of the most contagious viruses in the world and some have quoted up to 70 to 90 percent of susceptible people exposed to the measles will become infected. It is spread via respiratory droplets and can remain airborne or on surfaces up to a couple hours after exposure.

Complications can occur, and of the minor, ear infections, croup and diarrhea are some of the most common. More serious complications can also occur and it is estimated that one in 1,000 will die from such complications.

Those at greatest risk are pregnant women, those at the extremes of age, those with poor immune systems and those with poor nutritional status.

If you feel you may be at risk for measles and would like to be vaccinated, one of our INTEGRIS Health facilities is here for you.

The best prevention is vaccination

Measles can be prevented with MMR vaccine. The vaccine protects against three diseases: measles, mumps, and rubella. CDC recommends children get two doses of MMR vaccine, starting with the first dose at 12 through 15 months of age, and the second dose at 4 through 6 years of age. Teens and adults should also be up to date on their MMR vaccination.

The MMR vaccine is very safe and effective. Two doses of MMR vaccine are about 97% effective at preventing measles; one dose is about 93% effective.

Children may also get MMRV vaccine, which protects against measles, mumps, rubella, and varicella (chickenpox). This vaccine is only licensed for use in children who are 12 months through 12 years of age.

Some adults may also benefit from receiving a booster shot. Ask your primary physician if you are an individual that would benefit from a booster vaccine.

Understanding Measles

Measles often starts with cold-like symptoms, such as:

  • Fever
  • Runny nose
  • Inflammation and redness of the covering of the white part of the eye (conjunctivitis)
  • Cough
  • Tiny white spots inside the mouth (Koplik spots)
  • Within another few days, a red rash appears. It often starts on the face and then spreads to the rest of the body. Once the rash appears, the fever may get much higher. This rash fades after 4 to 7 days as symptoms go away.
  • The symptoms of measles may look like other health problems. Make sure you see your healthcare provider for a diagnosis.

The infection occurs in sequential stages over a period of two to three weeks.

  • Infection and incubation. For the first 10 to 14 days after you're infected, the measles virus incubates. You have no signs or symptoms of measles during this time.
  • Nonspecific signs and symptoms. Measles typically begins with a mild to moderate fever, often accompanied by a persistent cough, runny nose, inflamed eyes (conjunctivitis) and sore throat. This relatively mild illness may last two or three days.
  • Acute illness and rash. The rash consists of small red spots, some of which are slightly raised. Spots and bumps in tight clusters give the skin a splotchy red appearance. The face breaks out first.
  • Over the next few days, the rash spreads down the arms and trunk, then over the thighs, lower legs and feet. At the same time, the fever rises sharply, often as high as 104 to 105.8 F (40 to 41 C). The measles rash gradually recedes, fading first from the face and last from the thighs and feet.
  • Communicable period. A person with measles can spread the virus to others for about eight days, starting four days before the rash appears and ending when the rash has been present for four days.

How is measles treated?

There is no specific treatment for an established measles infection. There are however, measures you can take to protect at risk individuals exposed to the virus. Treatment will depend on your symptoms, age, and general health. It will also depend on how severe the condition is.

  • Post-exposure vaccination. Non-immunized 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.

Someone who doesn't have enough vitamin A may need to take extra doses of this vitamin. Vitamin A does not treat measles by itself. But in people with vitamin A deficiency, it lowers the risk for serious complications and death from infection. Most people don't know if they are lacking in vitamin A. So your healthcare provider will probably give you extra vitamin A if you have measles. Other treatment includes:

  • Medicine for fever or discomfort
  • Antibiotic medicine for complications such as bacterial infections that may develop. Antibiotics are not effective in treating viral infections like measles.


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David Chansolme, M.D. Talks About Measles

David Chansolme, M.D., is an infectious disease physician at INTEGRIS Southwest Medical Center.

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