Measles: Frequently Asked Questions

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Young Caucasian toddler boy getting vaccine shot in arm
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Measles is a contagious respiratory infection caused by the measles virus. While measles is a serious disease, there is a safe and effective vaccine. Before a measles vaccine became available in 1963, approximately 2.6 million deaths from measles occurred every year worldwide. The vaccine reduced measles deaths by 73% around the world between 2000 and 2018, totaling an estimated 23 million lives saved. Even with the availability of a vaccine, about 140,000 people still die every year from measles.

Since measles is uncommon in the United States, you might have lots of questions. Here are some of the most frequently asked measles questions.

Whom does measles affect?

Measles is deadly, and children under 5 years old are most at risk of dying from the measles. While the U.S. has officially declared measles eliminated in this country, outbreaks still occur, mostly among unvaccinated people. The number of deaths varies from year to year. In 2014, nearly 700 people died of measles in the United States.

In addition to young children, teens and adults (usually those over 30) can also be infected with measles. This can occur because the person wrongly thinks he or she is immune without checking documentation of vaccination. It also can happen if the adult or teen has not been vaccinated against measles. Some people choose not to vaccinate, while others cannot be immunized because they are too young or have health conditions that prevent safe vaccination.

How is measles spread?

Measles is highly contagious and is spread several ways. Measles is airborne, spreading through droplets in the air when an infected person coughs, sneezes or talks. Measles can also be passed through direct contact with someone who has the virus. If someone who is not immunized is exposed to a person with measles, he or she has a 90% chance of becoming infected. Non-immunized pregnant women exposed to measles can convey the infection to the fetus, resulting in profound congenital birth anomalies and life-threatening medical complications.

People usually don’t start developing measles symptoms for more than a week after exposure. But the virus can be transmitted to others for four days before the common symptom of full-body rash even appears and for four days afterward as well. People who have a weakened immune system are contagious longer, until they are completely recovered and symptoms have cleared up. People are most contagious when they have a runny nose and cough.

What are symptoms of measles?

A high fever is usually the first symptom of measles. The fever typically occurs about 10 to 12 days after exposure. A runny nose, cough, watery eyes, and white spots inside the cheeks may also appear. After these symptoms show up, the telltale measles rash breaks out, typically on the face and neck, and then it spreads across the entire body. The rash first appears a few days after the fever, approximately two weeks after exposure.

Measles can lead to complications such as:

  • Ear infections
  • Pneumonia
  • Seizures

About 20% of people in the U.S. who get measles will be hospitalized. Permanent brain damage or death is usually caused by complications from measles, rather than the virus itself.

How is measles treated?

Because measles is caused by a virus, there’s no medical treatment that can cure the disease—it simply has to clear up on its own. Someone with measles should drink fluids and get plenty of rest while sick with measles. Ibuprofen or acetaminophen can help reduce the fever, but never give aspirin to a child. (This can result in a dangerous reaction known as Reye’s syndrome.) Bacterial infections, such as pneumonia or ear infections, that develop as a complication of measles can be treated with antibiotics.

How is measles prevented?

The measles, which is also called rubeola, can be prevented with the MMR vaccine, which stands for measles–mumps–rubella. (Rubella is also known as German measles but is a different disease.) The MMRV vaccine, or measles-mumps-rubella-varicella vaccine, additionally protects against chickenpox. This vaccine is given to children in two doses: the first at about 1 year old and the second at about 4 to 6 years of age. Babies as young as 6 months old can get the vaccine, which is recommended if you will be traveling outside the U.S. with your baby.

If you or your child becomes infected with measles, you can prevent spreading it in your community. Don’t send your child to school or daycare if he or she has measles. Adults with measles should not go to work.

Is the measles vaccine safe?

The measles vaccine is safe for most people. People who have weakened immune systems or certain medical conditions, such as cancer or low platelet count, should talk to their doctor before getting the vaccine. If you are pregnant or severely allergic to an ingredient in the MMR vaccine, such as neomycin, you should not get the measles vaccine.

The measles vaccine can have minor side effects, such as a fever, mild rash or swollen glands. Uncommon side effects can include joint pain or stiffness, seizures, or low platelet count. In rare cases, a serious reaction can occur. However, it is safer to get the vaccine than to get the measles.

Can measles outbreaks occur in the United States?

Even though measles was officially eliminated in this country, people do still get infected and pass the infection to others. People who travel to countries where measles is more common can become infected and bring the virus back to their community when they return home. When this happens, measles is easily spread to others who are not immunized. Families that oppose the proven public health merits of childhood immunizations are highly vulnerable.

More than 1,200 people were infected with measles in 31 states in 2019, which is the largest number of cases since 2000, when the virus was declared eliminated.

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Medical Reviewer: William C. Lloyd III, MD, FACS
Last Review Date: 2020 Sep 2
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.
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