Medically Reviewed By William C. Lloyd III, MD, FACS
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What is measles?

Measles is a disease caused by a respiratory virus that produces telltale red spots on the body. In addition to the spots, symptoms include fever, runny nose, and cough. Measles is a childhood disease that rarely occurs in adults. Measles is also known as rubeola.

Measles has largely been eliminated in the Western world through the availability of a vaccine. It is still common in developing countries, with half of all deaths occurring in India. Measles occurs occasionally in the United States, most often carried by visitors from foreign regions, and may spread among populations of children who have not been vaccinated. Worldwide, there are approximately 10 million cases and 197,000 deaths each year from measles (Source: CDC).

Symptoms of measles typically develop within 10 to 12 days after infection with the virus. The first symptoms are generally a fever, sore throat, cough, and runny nose. The rash develops after a few days and may be associated with high fever. The virus is spread by infected droplets that enter the air when an infected person sneezes, coughs or talks.

Although most cases of measles do not result in complications, encephalitis can occur in one out of every 1,000 cases and may lead to severe brain damage. Seek immediate medical care (call 911) if you, or someone you are with, have symptoms of encephalitis, which include convulsions or seizures, lethargy, fainting or change in level of consciousness, and vomiting.

What are the symptoms of measles?

Symptoms of measles typically begin with fever, sore throat, cough, sore eyes, and runny nose. The characteristic symptom of measles, known as Koplik’s spots, appears on the inside of the mouth. Koplik’s spots are small white areas that may have bluish-colored centers.

Within three to five days of the onset of symptoms, the skin rash appears. The rash often begins on the face and spreads downward all over the body. A very high fever may develop with the rash. The rash starts to disappear after a few days, and the fever resolves.

Common symptoms of measles

Symptoms of measles typically appear one to two weeks after infection and include:

  • Cough
  • Fatigue
  • Fever
  • Rash
  • Red, watery eyes
  • Runny nose
  • Sore throat
  • White spots inside the mouth (Koplik’s spots)

Symptoms that might indicate a serious condition

For pregnant women, measles can be a serious condition that should be immediately evaluated in an emergency setting. Seek immediate medical care (call 911) if you, or someone you are with, are pregnant and have symptoms of the measles. You should also seek immediate care if you, or someone you are with, have measles and develop symptoms of encephalitis, which include:

  • Convulsions or seizures
  • Fainting or change in level of consciousness or lethargy
  • Vomiting

What causes measles?

Measles is an infectious disease caused by a virus of the paramyxovirus family, which infects the lining layer of the back of the throat and nose. You can catch measles through exposure to airborne droplets spread by an infected person when he or she sneezes or coughs. Particles carrying the virus remain infectious for hours, so even touching a door handle or other infected surface can put you at risk.

Measles is a highly contagious infection. It is estimated that 90% of people without immunity to the virus will catch it if exposed.

What are the risk factors for measles?

Since the vaccine for measles was developed in 1963, the disease has been extremely rare in the United States. However, measles can be carried into the United States from people traveling outside the country, so it is important to know the risk factors, which include:

  • Lack of immunization with the measles vaccine (MMR)
  • Travel to, or residence in, a country where measles is still prevalent
  • Vitamin A deficiency

Reducing your risk of measles

Because measles is highly contagious, anyone who has not been vaccinated is at risk. You can reduce risk factors for yourself or your child through the following steps:

  • Being immunized with the MMR vaccine
  • Ensuring that your children’s vaccinations are complete and up-to-date
  • Getting a postexposure vaccination within 72 hours of exposure
  • Getting treatment with immune globulin, which contains antibodies to help fight the infection

How is measles treated?

Although there is no treatment specifically to cure measles, medications to control pain and reduce fever may be given to make the patient more comfortable. Antibiotics may be prescribed if a secondary bacterial infection, such as pneumonia or an ear infection, develops. Patients with measles should be separated from others to avoid exposure and transmission of the virus.

Analgesic (pain control) medications to treat measles

Medications to treat the symptoms of measles include:

  • Acetaminophen (Tylenol)
  • Ibuprofen (Advil, Motrin)
  • Naproxen (Aleve)

What you can do to improve your measles

There are several self-care measures you can take to improve your symptoms and help with recovery. These include:

  • Drinking plenty of fluids
  • Gargling with warm saltwater to help relieve sore throat
  • Getting plenty of rest
  • Using a cold compress on your forehead
  • Using a humidifier to reduce congestion

What are the potential complications of measles?

In about 30% of cases, measles progresses to complications, including pneumonia, ear infections, or other conditions. You can help minimize your risk of serious complications by following the treatment plan you and your health care professional design specifically for you. Complications of measles include:

  • Ear infections (one out of 10 cases)
  • Encephalitis (one out of 1,000 cases)
  • Miscarriage or premature birth
  • Pneumonia (one out of 20 cases)

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Medical Reviewer: William C. Lloyd III, MD, FACS
Last Review Date: 2021 Jan 18
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THIS TOOL DOES NOT PROVIDE MEDICAL ADVICE. It is intended for informational purposes only. It is not a substitute for professional medical advice, diagnosis or treatment. Never ignore professional medical advice in seeking treatment because of something you have read on the site. If you think you may have a medical emergency, immediately call your doctor or dial 911.
  1. Measles (rubeola). Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.
  2. Measles: Make sure your child is fully immunized. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.
  3. Feigin RD, Cherry JD, Demmler-Harrison GJ, Kaplan SL (Eds), Textbook of Pediatric Infectious Diseases, 6th ed. Philadelphia: Saunders, 2009.