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Measles

Key points

  • Measles is a highly contagious infection caused by the measles virus. It mostly affects children; however, once you’ve had measles, you won’t get it again.
  • It’s usually passed on by breathing in the virus after an infected person coughs or sneezes.
  • Some of the symptoms of measles include a rash, fever and an eye infection (conjunctivitis).
  • The best way to protect yourself and your child against measles is through immunisation with the measles, mumps and rubella (MMR) vaccine.

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.

About measles

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.

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.


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

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.

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.

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.

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 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.

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

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

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For answers to frequently asked questions on this topic, see FAQs.

For sources and links to further information, see Resources.

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  • This information was published by Bupa's Health Information Team and is based on reputable sources of medical evidence. It has been reviewed by appropriate medical or clinical professionals. Photos are only for illustrative purposes and do not reflect every presentation of a condition. The content is intended only for general information and does not replace the need for personal advice from a qualified health professional. For more details on how we produce our content and its sources, visit the about our health information page.

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