What is measles?
Measles is a highly contagious viral illness that usually consists of a fever and cough, followed by a distinct red, blotchy rash or skin eruption.
Measles is the most contagious disease known. It is spread through coughing and sneezing (airborne droplets) from an infected child to another. It is also spread through direct contact with discharge from the nose and throat. The measles virus can survive in the air for hours and may be transmitted even after an infected individual is no longer in the room/area.
Measles is preventable by proper immunization with the measles vaccine.
What are the symptoms of the measles?
It may take between 7 to 14 days for a child to develop symptoms of measles after being exposed to the disease.
It is important to know that a child is contagious about four days before and four days after the rash develops. Therefore, children may pass the disease to others before they even know they have it.
During the early phase of the disease (which lasts between one and four days), symptoms usually resemble those of an upper respiratory infection. The following are the common symptoms of measles. However, each child may experience symptoms differently. Symptoms may include:
- Runny nose
- Hacking cough
- Conjunctivitis (pink eye)
- Small spots with white centers (Koplik’s spots) appear on the inside of the cheek (usually occur two or three days after symptoms begin )
- Rash. Deep, red, flat rash that starts on the face and spreads down to the chest, abdomen, arms, legs and feet. The rash starts as small distinct lesions, which then combines as one big rash. After three to seven days, the rash will begin to clear leaving a brownish discoloration and peeling skin.
- Severe diarrhea
The most serious complications from measles include the following:
- Ear infections
- Encephalitis (inflammation of the brain)
- Death (3 in 1,000 cases)
- Infants under 12 months are at highest risk of the most serious complications.
The symptoms of measles may resemble other skin conditions or medical problems. Always see your child’s health care provider for a diagnosis.
What to do if you think your child has measles
If your child develops symptoms of the measles, call your health care provider by phone to let them know before going to see them. They will let you know when to visit their office so as not to expose others in the waiting area. If you do not have a health care provider, your child may need to be seen at your local hospital emergency room or urgent care center. Please call before going to let them know your child may have measles. Measles is very contagious and preventing exposure is important to stopping its spread.
How is measles diagnosed?
Measles is usually diagnosed based on a complete medical history and physical examination of your child. The characteristic measles rash is unique and usually allows for a diagnosis simply on physical examination. In addition, your child’s doctor may order blood or urine tests to confirm the diagnosis.
What is the treatment for measles?
Specific treatment for measles will be determined by your child’s health care provider based on:
- Your child’s age, overall health, and medical history
- How sick he or she is
- Your child’s tolerance for specific medications, procedures or therapies
- How long the condition is expected to last
- Your opinion or preference
The goal of treatment for measles is to help decrease the severity of the symptoms. Since it is a viral infection, antibiotics won’t work. Treatment may include:
- Increased fluid intake
- Acetaminophen for fever (DO NOT GIVE ASPIRIN)
- Vitamin A. Two doses are recommended for all children in developing countries who get measles, to help prevent eye damage and blindness and decrease the number of deaths from the disease. Always see your child’s health care provider for advice.
If your child was exposed and has not been immunized, your child’s doctor may give the MCV vaccine to the child within 72 hours or immune globin (IG) within six days of measles exposure to help prevent the disease.
How is measles prevented?
Since the use of the measles (or rubeola) vaccine, the incidence of measles has decreased substantially. A small percentage of measles are due to vaccine failure. The measles vaccine is usually given in combination with the mumps and rubella vaccine. It is called the MMR. It is usually given when the child is age 12 months to 15 months and then again between age 4 and 6. During an outbreak, another booster shot may be recommended by your child’s health care provider. Other ways to prevent the spread of measles include:
- Keeping children home from school or day care for four days after the rash appears. Always contact your child’s health care provider for advice.
- Make sure all of your child’s contacts have been properly immunized.
“About Measles” Handout (PDF)