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Measles rubeola | Overview

Measles (rubeola): what parents need to know 

For years, measles has been rare in the United States, thanks to immunization.  But recently, that has changed.  In 2011, we’ve seen lots of outbreaks, mostly started by unimmunized people going to or coming from countries that have lots of measles—and then giving the infection to unimmunized people here.  In Massachusetts we have had 24 cases of measles this year—19 since May! 

What is measles?
Measles, also called rubeola, is a very contagious respiratory illness. 

What causes it?
Measles is caused by a virus.  It is spread through the air when people with the illness cough, sneeze or simply breathe near someone else.  

What are the symptoms?
The symptoms of measles typically include:

  • fever
  • runny nose
  • sore throat
  • rash
  • red eyes
  • cough
  • body aches

Sometimes, people with measles get white spots in their mouth called Koplik spots.  The spots in the mouth and rash usually start a few days after the illness has begun, so at the beginning it can be hard to tell measles from the common cold or flu

What can happen if you get measles?
Most people who get the measles recover completely, but there can be complications.  Possible complications include:

or even death. 

If a pregnant woman gets the measles, it can lead to miscarriage or premature birth

Is there a treatment for measles?
There is no treatment that can get rid of the measles virus, but there are treatments to make them more comfortable and help support them through the illness.

What can I do to prevent measles?

The measles vaccine (as part of the Measles, Mumps, and Rubella (MMR) vaccine) is safe and effective. 

  • Two doses are recommended for people 12 months and older, at least 28 days apart.
  • Infants between 6 and 12 months traveling to areas of the world with lots of measles can be given a dose before they travel—parents should check with their doctor. 
  • Adults should be sure they are fully immunized; anyone with any questions about their immunizations or their child’s immunizations should check with their doctor. 

To prevent not just measles but lots of other infections, it’s always a good idea to wash your (and your child's) hands often.  Carry hand sanitizer with you, and use it regularly.

What should I do if I think someone in my family has the measles?
Because measles is so contagious, you should call your health care provider for advice before you head to the office or emergency room.

If you do go to a doctor’s office or emergency room, immediately let the staff know that you are worried about measles so that they can put precautions into place. 

How can I find out more?
Visit the CDC’s Measles website for lots of useful information, including photographs of people with measles and information on outbreaks and vaccination.

How Boston Children's Hospital approaches measles

In addition to treating children with measles, Boston Children's Hospital's Informatics Program created HealthMap, an online resource and smart phone app that helps track the spread of contagious diseases, including measles, in real time.

Measles rubeola | Symptoms & Causes


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.


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

Measles rubeola | Testing & Diagnosis

How is measles diagnosed?
Measles is usually diagnosed based on a complete medical history and physical exam of your child. The rash measles causes is unique, and usually allows for an accurate diagnosis.

In addition, your child's doctor may order blood or urine tests to confirm the diagnosis.

Measles rubeola | Treatments

How is measles usually treated?
The goal of treatment for measles is to help prevent the disease, or decrease the severity of the symptoms. Since it is a viral infection, there is no cure for measles.

Traditional treatments for measles include:

  • increased fluid intake
  • acetaminophen (Tylenol ®) for fever (do not give aspirin!)

If your child was exposed to measles and has not been immunized, your child's doctor may give him the Measles, Mumps, Rubella (MMR) vaccine within 72 hours to help prevent the disease from emerging.

Measles rubeola | Research & Clinical Trials

Children's HealthMap iPhone app helps track disease outbreaks in real time

Boston Children's Hospital's HealthMap team has introduced a mobile phone application, “Outbreaks Near Me,” which provides location-based alerts for disease outbreaks (including measles outbreaks) using the GPS of a user’s iPhone. Learn more.

HealthMap Outbreaks Near me

Measles rubeola | Programs & Services