Signs and Symptoms of Measles

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  • Measles—a once-common childhood disease that was nearly eliminated by widespread vaccination—is back. According to the CDC, 349 Americans had confirmed measles cases in 2018; the number of cases continue to surge in 2019. Most American adults have never seen measles, so today’s parents are far less likely to immediately recognize a case of measles than their grandparents. But early recognition of symptoms is crucial to halting the spread of disease. Measles symptoms in adults and measles symptoms in children are similar.

  • 1
    woman on couch sick with fever, cold or flu

    A high fever is often the first sign of measles. Of course, lots of illnesses can cause fever. Suspect measles, though, if you live in an area that is currently experiencing a measles outbreak, especially if your child has not been vaccinated for measles. Measles is very contagious; 9 out of 10 people who aren’t vaccinated for measles will get the disease if they spend time near an infected person. Fever usually begins about 10 to 12 days after exposure to the measles virus and can last up to a week.

  • 2
    woman coughing into hand

    A hacking cough is another symptom of measles—and a prime way the measles virus spreads. The virus that causes measles spreads through the air or by direct contact with virus-infected body fluids (such as saliva or nasal secretions). When a person who has measles coughs, the virus can be inhaled by other people nearby, or inadvertently transferred from hand to mouth or nose via microscopic drops of fluid. Most people will develop cold-like symptoms, including a cough, runny nose and reddish eyes, a few days before developing a measles rash.

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    Runny nose

    The common cold can cause a runny nose. So can allergies. But if you or your child develops a fever, cough and runny nose and you live near a measles outbreak, your respiratory symptoms may be the result of measles infection. If at all possible, stay home and away from other people to prevent further spread of infection, and contact your family doctor about a measles diagnosis. If no rash develops within 5 days, measles was not the culprit.

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    Red eyes
    man wiping nose

    Bloodshot, watery eyes are another common sign of measles. If the measles rash has not yet appeared, you may be tempted to attribute reddened eyes to pinkeye, a contagious eye infection that can be caused by bacteria and viruses. Avoid touching the eyes; if you must touch or rub the eyes, wash your hands immediately after doing so. Light-sensitivity can be another symptom of measles infection.

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    Koplik's spots
    Young African American girl getting throat checked by urgent care nurse or physician assistant

    Koplik’s spots are another measles symptom that usually shows up before the measles rash. Look for small whitish spots inside the cheeks. (Some people say they look like small grains of salt.) If you notice these spots inside the mouth of an adult or child who also has a fever, cough and runny nose, there’s a good chance the person has measles. The affected person should not go to work, school or public places.

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    Measles rash
    boy with measles rash and discomfort

    The classic measles rash is characterized by flat or slightly-raised red spots that usually appear near the hairline and spread down the body over a period of days. As the rash spreads, the spots may join to form larger clusters. A measles rash is itchy. The rash usually appears approximately 3 to 5 days after respiratory symptoms, and typically lasts about a week before it gradually fades. People with measles are contagious before the rash develops, and for about 4 days after the rash appears.

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    What to do

    There is no specific treatment for measles. Someone who has measles symptoms should stay home and away from other people until at least 4 days after the rash appears. Extra rest and fluids can help ease symptoms. You can also use ibuprofen (Advil, Motrin) or acetaminophen (Tylenol) to bring the fever down. Notify your healthcare provider if you or a loved one is exposed to the measles virus or develops measles symptoms. Most people recover from measles without medical treatment, but some people develop complications that need specialized medical care.

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    When to see a doctor
    Young African American boy having throat checked by older African American doctor

    Complications of measles include ear infection, croup, diarrhea, pneumonia, and encephalitis. Call your healthcare provider soon after you notice symptoms of ear pain (including frequent ear tugging in a child) or frequent loose stools. Call 911 if the affected person has a seizure, sudden headache, unusual confusion, or difficulty breathing.

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Medical Reviewer: William C. Lloyd III, MD, FACS
Last Review Date: 2021 Apr 30
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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