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What is measles?

Measles is a viral illness caused by the rubeola virus that is spread through coughs and sneezes.

Symptoms of measles

The symptoms of measles include:

  • Spotty red/brown rash
  • Fever
  • Cough/cold-like symptoms
  • Greyish white spots in the mouth and throat

The measles rash develops two to four days after the onset of illness, starting with the face and head and spreading down the body.

If the measles virus infects the lungs, it can cause pneumonia. Some children infected with the virus suffer from encephalitis (inflammation of the brain), which can cause seizures and permanent brain damage.

Picture of Measles

This picture shows a child with measles who clearly feels miserable.

Measles diagnosis

A doctor will usually make a measles diagnosis based on the symptoms, including the distinctive rash.

A blood or saliva test may be taken to confirm the diagnosis.

Measles treatment

There's no specific treatment recommended for measles, other than making the person with measles feel more comfortable:

  • Age-appropriate paracetamol or ibuprofen can help relieve fever, aches and pains
  • Drinking plenty of water to avoid dehydration
  • Use damp cotton wool to clean the eyes
  • Closing curtains to help reduce sensitivity to light

Parents worry about childhood rashes, but most are not measles. Seek medical advice if you notice symptoms of measles, but phone ahead to say you suspect measles. Doctors have to register all cases of measles so that any infection clusters can be tracked and treated.

Measles usually gets better on its own, but if additional symptoms develop, seek urgent medical advice.

In severe cases of measles, especially if there are complications, hospital treatment may be needed.

Children who catch measles should not go back to school until at least five days after the appearance of symptoms.

Measles prevention

Protection against measles as well as mumps and rubella is given in the MMR vaccine at 13 months and then a booster between the ages of three and five. If you are an adult who has not had the vaccination or the diseases, it may be important for you to receive the MMR vaccination too.

Women planning to become pregnant who have not been vaccinated should talk to their GP as the jab cannot be given during pregnancy.

Measles during pregnancy can harm the unborn baby.

The number of children given the MMR vaccine dipped after a now-discredited study in the Lancet in 1998 linked the jab with autism and bowel disease. The research paper was retracted by the medical journal and the doctor behind the research was struck off. However, confidence in the MMR vaccine is taking time to return and some groups of children are growing up never having had measles protection.

The NHS says people who are not fully vaccinated are not just at risk themselves, but they pose an infection risk to others, such as babies and toddlers who are too young to be vaccinated.

If there is a major outbreak of measles, the NHS will make an urgent appeal to parents to get their children vaccinated with the MMR jab.



If you do catch measles

The NHS advises children and adults with measles to:

  • Avoid contact with others, particularly pregnant women and infants as they are more vulnerable to infection.
  • Stay away from schools, nurseries and work places until at least five days have elapsed after the onset of the symptoms.
  • Telephone your GP for advice before attending the surgery, NHS walk-in centre or hospital A&E unit, to enable arrangements to be made in advance for minimising your contact with others who may be vulnerable to complications of measles.
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WebMD Medical Reference

Medically Reviewed by Dr Rob Hicks on January 23, 2017

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