Measles (rubeola) Symptoms & Causes

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In-Depth

Ronald Samuels, MD, MPH, Boston Children's Hospital Division of General Pediatrics

What is measles, exactly?
Measles, also called rubeola, "10-day measles" or "red measles," is a very contagious viral illness that causes a distinct rash, fever and cough.

Is measles common?
Thanks to the Measles, Mumps, Rubella (MMR) vaccine, cases are relatively rare in the United States. In fact, since the vaccine was introduced in 1963, cases of the measles in the country have been virtually non-existent—until recently.

Outbreaks of measles have begun to emerge, believed to stem from unimmunized people traveling to or from countries with a high incidence of measles, and then spreading the infection to unimmunized individuals here in the U.S.

In Massachusetts alone, 24 cases of measles have been reported in 2011 ... 19 of them since May.

Can anything be done to prevent measles?
Since the use of the Measles, Mumps, Rubella (MMR) vaccine, the number of children infected with measles has dropped by 99 percent. About 5 percent of measles are due to vaccine failure.

The vaccine is usually given when your child is 12 to 15 months old, and then again when he is between 4 and 6 years old.

Causes

What causes measles?
Measles is caused by morbillivirus, which is mostly seen in the winter and spring. It's spread from one child to another through direct contact with discharge from the nose and throat. Sometimes, it is spread through airborne droplets (from a cough or sneeze) from an infected child.

Signs and symptoms

What are the symptoms of measles?
It may take between eight to 12 days for your child to develop symptoms of measles after being exposed to the disease.

It's important to know that your child is contagious one to two days before the onset of symptoms and three to five days after the rash develops. While symptoms may vary from child to child, they typically include:

  • hacking cough
  • redness and irritation of the eyes
  • fever
  • small red spots with white centers that appear on the inside of the cheek (these usually occur two days before the rash on the skin appears)
  • a rash (deep, red and flat, starting on the face and spreading down to the trunk, arms and legs; this rash usually begins as small, distinct lesions, which then combine as one big rash)

The most serious complications from measles can include:

Pregnant women who develop measles are at higher risk of miscarriage and premature birth

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