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What is measles?

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

Measles is rare in the United States, thanks to immunization. But recently, there have been more outbreaks. Outbreaks are 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.

The most serious complications from measles can include:

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

Measles (Rubeola) | Symptoms & Causes

What are the symptoms of measles?

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)
  • runny nose
  • sore throat
  • 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. 

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.

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.

Measles (Rubeola) | Diagnosis & Treatments

How is measles diagnosed?

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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.

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) | Frequently Asked Questions

Is measles common?

Thanks to the Measles, Mumps, Rubella (MMR) vaccine, introduced in 1963, cases are relatively rare in the United States.

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 in the U.S.

Is there a treatment for measles?

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

What can I do to prevent measles?

Immunize. The measles vaccine is safe and effective. Since the use of the 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. 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 Centers for Disease Control and Prevention's measles website for lots of useful information, including photographs of people with measles and information on outbreaks and vaccination.

Measles (Rubeola) | Research & Clinical Trials

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.

HealthMap Outbreaks Near me

Measles (Rubeola) | Programs & Services