How to prevent measles

profile picture of Elizabeth Rogers
Associate Clinical Director, Bupa Health Clinics
07 February 2024
Next review due February 2027

Since the introduction of a vaccine, measles has become less common. But recently there have been several measles outbreaks across the UK. Here, I explain what you need to know about measles, and how to prevent its spread.

person and child lying in bed

What is measles?

Measles is a very contagious viral infection. The majority of recent cases have been in children under 10, but it can affect you at any age. Most people who catch measles recover after a week of symptoms. But measles can cause severe illness in certain groups, including:

  • babies
  • young children
  • pregnant people
  • people with a weakened immune system

The measles, mumps and rubella (MMR) vaccine reduces the risk of catching measles. It helps your body to fight against the measles virus. After the vaccine was introduced in 1988, the number of measles cases in the UK became very low. But in recent years, cases have started rising again.

Why are measles cases rising?

In the UK, the MMR vaccine is offered routinely during childhood. Children are invited to have the first dose at age one, and the second dose just before starting school. But fewer children are being vaccinated, so they aren’t protected from measles.

To stop the spread of measles, at least 95 per cent of the population need to be vaccinated. But recent data shows that only around 86 per cent are vaccinated.

We’re not exactly sure why vaccination rates have reduced. Health experts believe that it could be due to many factors, such as misinformation and negative rumours. Other possible reasons include people missing appointments or simply not being aware of the disease.

As with any vaccine, there is a chance of side effects. A severe allergic reaction is very rare and happens in 1 in 900,000 people. Some people may still believe that MMR causes autism due to a past study. But research has shown that there’s no link between MMR and autism.

What are the symptoms of measles?

The most noticeable symptom is a measles rash. The rash is red, blotchy, and isn’t itchy. It usually starts on the face and neck, then spreads to the hands and feet after a few days. Measles can also cause a fever, sore red eyes and a cough.

Most people who catch measles recover after around a week. But in rare cases measles can cause serious complications. These include:

In rare cases, measles can lead to death. If you catch measles when you’re pregnant, there’s a chance it could harm you or your baby.

How do you treat measles?

Measles usually gets better on its own – there’s no specific treatment. There are things you can do to manage it at home, such as resting and drinking plenty of fluids. To help ease your symptoms, you can take paracetamol or ibuprofen.

If you think you or your child may have measles you should seek advice from your GP or call NHS 111.

Measles is very contagious, so you should phone first before going to the GP surgery. They may suggest talking over the phone to avoid infecting others.

You should also seek advice if you’ve been near someone with measles and the following apply.

  • You haven’t had both doses of the MMR vaccine.
  • You’re pregnant.
  • You have a weakened immune system.

When should I seek urgent medical care for measles?

If someone is severely ill, they may need to be treated in a hospital. You should seek urgent medical care if you or your child show signs of a complication. These include:

  • feeling short of breath
  • a very high fever that won’t go down
  • seizures (fits)
  • feeling confused

What can I do to help prevent measles spreading?

Measles spreads through the air. A person with measles spreads the virus when breathing, coughing, or sneezing. It spreads very easily to unprotected people.

Vaccination is the best way to protect yourself or your child from measles. You need both doses of MMR to ensure that you’re fully protected. So, it’s important to catch up if you’ve missed a dose. After getting both doses you should have protection for life.

Being vaccinated also helps to protect those who are unable to have the vaccine, such as pregnant people.

If you’re pregnant, you can arrange to have the vaccine after your baby is born. If you’ve missed any doses, or you’re unsure whether you’ve had both doses, contact your GP to arrange an appointment.

Here at Bupa we understand how important your family is. So with our family health insurance you can rest assured knowing that eligible treatment and support is available to you and your loved ones when you need it.

profile picture of Elizabeth Rogers
Dr Elizabeth Rogers
Associate Clinical Director, Bupa Health Clinics



Atiya Henry, Health Content Editor at Bupa UK

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