Conditions & Treatments

Measles

Measles is a viral illness characterized by a distinct rash and a fever.

Measles

What is measles?

Measles, also known as rubeola, is a viral illness. It is characterized by a distinct rash and a fever. Measles is very contagious. It is spread through airborne droplets of nasal secretions. When infected people cough or sneeze, droplets spray into the air and can remain active and contagious for 2 hours. Once a common childhood disease, it is now rare due to effective immunizations in developed countries. Although usually a mild illness in children, measles can have serious complications in adults. It can be fatal to children and adults with weak immune systems.

What are the symptoms of the measles?

The measles usually begin with flu-like symptoms. However, each person may experience symptoms differently. Symptoms may include:

  • Fever

  • Runny nose

  • Sore, pink eyes (conjunctivitis)

  • Cough

  • Feeling ill

  • Swollen lymph nodes

  • Headache

In most cases, 3 to 4 days into the course of the disease, tiny white spots appear on the inside of the mouth. Within another few days, a red rash appears, covering the whole body. Once this rash appears, the fever may get much worse. This rash fades after 4 to 7 days as symptoms subside.

The symptoms of measles may look like other medical conditions. Always consult your doctor for a diagnosis.

What complications are commonly associated with measles?

The following are some complications that may occur from the measles:

  • Ear infections

  • Lung infections (pneumonia)

  • Diarrhea, vomiting, and abdominal pain

  • Encephalitis (inflammation of the brain)

What is the treatment for measles?

Specific treatment for the measles will be determined by your doctor based on:

  • Your overall health and medical history

  • Extent of the condition

  • Your tolerance for specific medications, procedures, or therapies

  • Expectations for the course of the condition

  • Your opinion or preference

Although antibiotics will not treat the measles itself, it may be necessary to treat secondary infections. Usually plenty of fluids and acetaminophen for the fever help make you more comfortable.

How can measles be prevented?

Measles, mumps, and rubella (MMR) is a childhood vaccination against measles, mumps, and rubella. People who have had the measles are immune for life. However, if you work at an educational institute, or a health care setting, or are planning international travel, you may want to be vaccinated to boost your immunity. As there has been nearly no measles circulating in the United States, immunity in most adults has waned. 

Usually, the first dose of the MMR vaccine is given when a child is 12 months old, and a second dose is given at 4 to 6 years of age. However, if 28 days have passed since the first dose was given, a second dose may be given before the age of 4. Infants 6 through 11 months who are at risk for catching measles, such as before international travel, may receive one dose although they will still need 2 more doses.

If you have measles, take special care to avoid other people or public places for about a week after the onset of rash. This will help to prevent an outbreak.

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Massachusetts General Hospital understands that a variety of factors influence patients' health care decisions. That's just one reason why we're dedicated to ensuring patients understand their diagnosis and treatment options. Because a single option might not serve all patients, we offer a wide range of coordinated treatments and related services across the hospital. Patients should consult with their primary care doctor or other qualified health care provider for medical advice and diagnosis information.

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