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Measles

Published by Bupa’s Health Information Team, December 2011.

This factsheet is for people who have measles, or who would like information about it.

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

About measles

Measles is a highly contagious respiratory illness. This means that the measles virus can easily be passed from one person to another if breathed in. 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. Measles is now less common because of the measles, mumps and rubella (MMR) vaccine.

Measles mostly affects children, but once you’ve had measles, you won’t get it again.

Symptoms of measles

The early symptoms of measles usually appear around 10 days after you become infected with the virus. However, symptoms may show as early as seven days after you catch the virus, or as late as 18 days. Your symptoms may last about six to 10 days and may include: 

  • a fever
  • an eye infection with discharge (conjunctivitis)
  • a runny nose
  • a cough
  • small, red spots with white centres inside your cheeks (Koplik spots)
  • loss of appetite
  • a sore throat
  • abdominal (tummy) pain

A red, blotchy rash that isn’t itchy will usually appear three to five days after the first symptoms of measles. The rash generally spreads from your face and behind your ears, before spreading to rest of your body. This usually lasts about a week before fading. 

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

These symptoms aren’t always caused by measles, but if you or your child have them, see your GP.

The Health Protection Agency advises that children with measles stay away from school, nursery or other children for four full days after the rash appears to stop them passing the infection on to other children. See our common questions for more information.

Complications of measles

Complications of measles including ear infections, pneumonia and diarrhoea are common.

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

Rare, but potentially fatal complications include the following.

  • Encephalitis (inflammation of the brain). The symptoms are similar to meningitis and include drowsiness, headaches, seizures, confusion and a dislike of light.
  • Subacute sclerosing panencephalitis is a complication that affects your nervous system and can occur months or even years after the initial measles infection. Symptoms include seizures, mental health problems and unusual behaviour.

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

The number of otherwise healthy people who die from the complications of measles in developed countries is relatively low. However, in developing countries, up to one in four people with measles die from complications, especially if they aren’t getting enough nutrients to support their immune system.

If you’re pregnant and become infected with measles, the virus can result in miscarriage, premature birth of your baby or low birth weight when he or she is born.

Causes of measles

Measles is caused by a paramyxovirus. The virus is spread when an infected person coughs or sneezes. Droplets of infected mucus or saliva in the air can then be breathed in by other people. If this happens, the measles virus may grow in cells in the back of your throat and your lungs.

You can also get measles if you're in close or direct contact with the nose or mouth of someone who has the virus. You're most likely to catch measles from someone who is in the early stages of infection until four days after their rash has appeared.

The measles virus can survive on surfaces for up to two hours and be passed on when you touch a surface and then touch your mouth or nose.

Diagnosis of measles

Your GP will ask you about your symptoms and examine you. He or she may also ask you about your medical history.

Your GP will usually be able to diagnose you with measles from your symptoms, especially by the type of rash you may have.

Your GP may do a saliva or 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 the local health protection unit. This is to ensure there are accurate records of how many people in the UK are getting measles each year.

Treatment of measles

In healthy people, measles usually gets better on its own, although it can be very unpleasant. There is no specific treatment for measles, but there are things you can do to help yourself feel better. 

Self-help

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

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.

Your GP may prescribe antibiotics if you have any complications, such as pneumonia.

If you don’t develop any complications, you will probably get better within two weeks.

Prevention of measles

The most effective way to protect against measles is immunisation with the MMR vaccine. This is a combined vaccine against measles, mumps and rubella. The vaccine is given in two doses to children at around 12 to 13 months and again before they start school at three to five.

Older children and adults can also have the vaccine in two doses. Adults and children over 18 months can be given the two doses as close together as one month apart, but preferably three months apart.

If you think your child has already had measles, it’s still advised that he or she has the MMR vaccine to protect against mumps and rubella.

There are very few reasons why people can’t have the MMR vaccine. The vaccine isn’t given to people who have a weakened immune system (for example those with HIV/AIDS), pregnant women and people who have previously had a severe allergic reaction (known as anaphylaxis) to the vaccine. People who can’t take the vaccine who come into contact with measles may be offered an injection of immunoglobulin – a medicine that helps boost the immune system and prevents measles developing.

The Department of Health and World Health Organization both recommend all children should have the MMR vaccine so that serious health problems aren’t caused by an outbreak of mumps, measles or rubella. After two doses of the MMR vaccine, fewer than one in 100 children are left unprotected against measles.

 

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

For sources and links to further information, see Resources.


  • 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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  • Publication date: December 2011

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