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Measles

Measles is a highly contagious infection that’s caused by the measles virus. It’s a different condition to German measles (rubella), which is caused by the rubella virus.

In the UK, measles is now less common because of how successful the measles, mumps and rubella (MMR) vaccine has been.

Measles mostly affects children. If one person has measles, nine out of 10 people who aren’t immunised and come into close contact with that person will catch it. But once you’ve had measles, you won’t get it again.

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An image showing a close-up of measles rash, which has small red spots

Details

  • Symptoms Symptoms of measles

    The early symptoms of measles usually show around 10 days after you become infected with the virus. However, you may get symptoms as early as seven days after catching the virus, or as late as 18 days. Your symptoms might last around one to four days. You might have:

    • a fever
    • an eye infection (conjunctivitis)
    • a runny nose
    • a cough
    • small, red spots with white centres inside your mouth (Koplik spots)
    • a loss of appetite
    • tiredness

    A red, blotchy rash, that isn’t itchy, will usually appear two to four days after your first symptoms. The rash generally starts on your face and behind your ears before spreading to rest of your body. It usually lasts for around a week, before fading.

    These symptoms may be caused by problems other than measles. If you or your child have any of these symptoms, see your GP for advice.

  • Diagnosis Diagnosis of measles

    Your GP will ask you about your symptoms and examine you. They may also ask you about your medical history.

    If you have measles, your GP may be able to diagnose it from your symptoms. Because it’s so rare, your GP might arrange for you to have a blood test to confirm whether or not you have measles.

    Measles is a notifiable disease. This means that if your GP suspects you have measles, by law he or she has to report it to your local health protection unit. This is to ensure that outbreaks of measles are detected and managed quickly.

  • Treatment Treatment of measles

    Although measles can be very unpleasant, if you’re healthy, it usually gets better on its own. There is no specific treatment for measles. However, there are things you can do to help yourself feel better.

    Not many people develop serious complications; however, if you do, you will need to go to hospital. If you don’t develop any complications, you will probably get better within two weeks. See our complications section for more information.

    Self-help

    It’s important to get plenty of rest and drink enough fluids to stop yourself from becoming dehydrated.

    It’s also important to stay away from work and people who are at risk of measles for four full days after your rash appears. If your child has measles, you should keep them away from school or nursery for the same amount of time.

    Medicines

    Taking over-the-counter painkillers, such as paracetamol, may help to ease your symptoms. Always read the patient information leaflet that comes with your medicine and if you have any questions, ask your pharmacist for advice.

    You won’t be prescribed antibiotics as they won’t work against infections such as measles. But your GP may prescribe you antibiotics if you have specific complications, such as pneumonia or an ear or eye infection.

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  • Causes Causes of measles

    The measles virus spreads through the air when an infected person coughs or sneezes. If you breathe in the droplets of infected mucus or saliva, the virus will then grow in the back of your throat and lungs. You can also get measles if you’re in close or direct contact with the nose or mouth of someone with the virus.

    The measles virus can also survive on surfaces for up to two hours. You can catch it if you touch an infected surface and then touch your mouth or nose.

    You’re more likely to catch measles from someone who is in the early stages of infection until four days after their rash has appeared.

  • Complications Complications of measles

    The most common complications of measles include ear infections and diarrhoea. Another common, but severe complication of measles is pneumonia.

    Less common complications may include inflammation of your lungs, liver and sinuses. Around one in 200 children may get febrile convulsions (fits that occur with a high temperature).

    There are some very rare, but potentially fatal complications of measles, which are described below.

    • Encephalitis. This is inflammation of your brain. Symptoms of encephalitis are similar to meningitis and might include a fever, drowsiness, headaches, neck stiffness, seizures and confusion.
    • Subacute panencephalitis. This is a complication that can affect your nervous system. Symptoms may include seizures and mental health problems. Subacute panencephalitis might occur months or even years after you have had the initial measles infection and it’s more likely to occur in children.

    Complications of measles are more likely to occur in children under five and adults over 20. People who have a weak immune system, such as those who have HIV/AIDS or illnesses such as leukaemia, are also more likely to get complications.

    If you’re pregnant and become infected with measles, it may cause miscarriage, premature birth or low birth weight of your baby.

    If you have measles and develop shortness of breath, chest pain or you start to cough up blood, seek urgent medical help. You must also seek urgent medical help if your child has measles and develops febrile convulsions.

    The number of healthy people who die from complications of measles in developed countries is relatively low, when compared to people in developing countries. See our FAQ for more information.

  • Prevention Prevention of measles

    The most effective way to protect yourself and your child against measles is with the MMR vaccine. This is a combined vaccine against measles, mumps and rubella (German measles).

    The Department of Health and World Health Organization both recommend that all children should have the MMR vaccine. This is so that serious health problems aren’t caused by an outbreak of measles, mumps or rubella.

    It’s important to remember, if enough people aren’t protected an epidemic can occur. See our FAQ to find out how you can help your community by getting vaccinated.

    When you have the vaccine, you will have it in two doses. After the first dose of the MMR vaccine, 90 out of 100 people will be protected against measles. Some people may not always respond to the first dose of the vaccine and so it’s important to have two doses of the vaccine. The second dose can work on anyone who isn’t immunised following the first dose.

    The vaccine is offered to children at around 12 to 13 months old and again before they start school at three to five years. Older children and adults can also have the vaccine in two doses. Adults and children over 18 months can have the two doses as close together as one month apart, but preferably three months apart.

    It’s important to remember you can receive the MMR vaccine at any age. It’s not dangerous to have the MMR vaccine more than once. If you can’t remember whether or not you or your child has had it, ask your GP.

    There are very few reasons why people can’t have the MMR vaccine. However, the vaccine isn’t given to:

    • people who have a weak immune system, for example, those who have HIV/AIDS
    • pregnant women
    • anyone who has previously had a severe allergic reaction (known as anaphylaxis) to the vaccine, gelatine or the antibiotic neomycin 
  • FAQs FAQs

    Are measles and German measles the same thing?

    Answer

    No, they are unrelated conditions caused by different viruses. 

    Explanation

    Rubella (German measles) is an infection that’s caused by the rubella virus. If you have rubella, your symptoms may include:

    • swollen glands (behind your ears)
    • a rash – which may last around three to five days
    • aching joints

    You might also have a fever, an eye infection (conjunctivitis) and a runny nose – all of which are symptoms similar to measles.

    It’s important to remember that rubella is usually a mild infection and has fewer complications than measles. However, it can be harmful to your unborn baby if you’re pregnant. It may cause deafness, brain and heart damage and eye defects in unborn babies. Rubella can also lead to miscarriage. The earlier you’re infected the more likely your baby may be affected.

    The best way to protect yourself and your child against rubella is with the measles, mumps and rubella (MMR) vaccine. For more information about this vaccine, see our factsheet.

    Is it possible to die from measles?

    Answer

    Across the world, many people die every year from the complications of measles. But it’s rare for people to die from measles in developed countries like the UK.

    Explanation

    According to the World Health Organization, in 2012, around 120,000 people died from measles globally, most of which were children under five. Most of these people died from the complications that measles cause, rather than the condition itself.

    The number of people who catch measles is much higher in developing countries where there are weak health systems or no immunisation programmes in place. It’s rare for people in developed countries, such as the UK, to die from measles.

    What's herd immunity?

    Answer

    When you’re immunised against an infection such as measles, you help to build up immunity for your community as well as for yourself. This is called herd immunity, but is also known as community immunity.

    Herd immunity helps to protect the people around you who can’t be immunised, for example, very young babies and pregnant women.

    Explanation

    Herd immunity develops when you and others in your community are immunised. This means the spread of infection, such as measles, is less likely.

    If you have been immunised, you’re less likely to catch measles and therefore pass it on to anyone else. If enough people are immunised, it will protect those who can’t be immunised. This may include pregnant women, very young babies or people who have a weak immune system.

    For herd immunity to work, a certain number of people in every community have to be immunised. The more infectious an illness is, the greater number of people who need to be immunised. Because measles is highly infectious, at least 95 out of every 100 people need to be immunised for herd immunity to work.

    For diseases that are less infectious, fewer people need to be immunised to create herd immunity.

  • Resources Resources

    Further information

    Sources

    • Measles. NICE Clinical Knowledge Summaries. cks.nice.org.uk, published August 2013
    • Measles. BMJ Best Practice. bestpractice.bmj.com, published August 2013
    • Vaccines and immunizations. Centers for Disease Control and Protection. www.cdc.gov, published 8 July 2013
    • Transmission of measles, Signs and symptoms, Complications of measles. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. www.cdc.gov, published 31 August 2009
    • Immunisation against infectious disease: the green book. GOV.UK. www.gov.uk, published 2006
    • Encephalitis. PatientPlus. www.patient.co.uk/patientplus.asp, published 19 July 2012
    • Measles. PatientPlus. www.patient.co.uk/patientplus.asp, published 19 April 2012
    • Anaphylaxis and its treatment. PatientPlus. www.patient.co.uk/patientplus.asp, published 20 February 2012
    • Measles clinical presentation. Medscape. emedicine.medscape.com, published 31 January 2014
    • Measles. World Health Organization. www.who.int, published February 2014
    • Vaccination greatly reduces disease, disability, death and inequity worldwide. World Health Organization. www.who.int, published February 2008
    • Community immunity (“herd immunity”). National Institute of Allergy and Infectious Diseases. www.niaid.nih.gov, reviewed 21 October 2010
    • Concepts of control. Public Health England. www.hpa.org.uk, accessed 10 July 2014
    • Notifications of infectious diseases (NOIDs). Public Health England. www.hpa.org.uk, accessed 28 April 2014
    • Joint Formulary Committee. British National Formulary (online) London: BMJ group and Pharmaceutical Press. www.medicinescomplete.com, accessed 28 April 2014 (online version)
  • Related information Related information

  • Author information Author information

    Reviewed by Kuljeet Battoo, Bupa Health Information Team, July 2014.

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