Measles, also known as rubeola, is a viral infection of the respiratory system. Measles is a very contagious disease that can spread through contact with infected mucus and saliva. The coughing or sneezing of an infected person can release the virus into the air. The virus can live on surfaces for several hours. As the infected particles enter the air and settle on surfaces, anyone within close proximity can become infected with the measles virus.
Drinking from an infected person’s glass or sharing eating utensils with an infected person increases your risk of infection.
Measles is a leading cause of death in children. Of the 139,300 global deaths related to measles in 2010, the World Health Organization (WHO) reports that most of the victims were under the age of 5 (WHO).
Contact a doctor immediately if you suspect you have measles. If you have not received a measles vaccine and you come into contact with an infected person, visit your doctor to receive a measles vaccine within 72 hours of contact to prevent an infection. You can also prevent an infection with a dose of immuneglobulin taken within six days of contact with an infected person.
The number of measles cases has significantly dropped in recent decades due to immunizations. However, the disease has not been completely eliminated. In fact, there were 222 cases of measles in 2011, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC).
Measles primarily occurs in unvaccinated children. Some parents choose not to vaccinate their children for fear that vaccines will have adverse effects on their children. Most children and adults who receive a measles vaccine do not experience side effects. But in rare cases, the vaccine has been linked to seizures, deafness, brain damage, and coma. Some parents believe that the measles vaccine can cause autism in children. However, numerous studies have yet to find a link between autism and immunizations.
A vitamin A deficiency is also a risk factor for measles. Children with too little vitamin A in their diets have a higher risk of catching the virus.
Symptoms of measles generally appear within 14 days of exposure to the virus. Symptoms include:
- red eyes
- light sensitivity
- muscle aches
- runny nose
- sore throat
- white spots inside the mouth
A widespread skin rash is a classic sign of measles. This rash can last up to seven days and generally appears within the first three to five days of exposure to the virus. A measles rash commonly develops at the head and slowly spreads to other parts of the body. Signs of a measles rash include red, itchy bumps.
Your doctor can confirm measles by examining a skin rash and checking for symptoms that are characteristic of the disease, such as white spots in the mouth, fever, cough, and sore throat. If unable to confirm a diagnosis based on observation, your doctor may order a blood test to check for the measles virus.
There is no prescription medication to treat measles. The virus and symptoms typically disappear within two to three weeks. However, your doctor may recommend:
- acetaminophen to relieve fever and muscle aches
- rest to help boost your immune system
- plenty of fluids (six to eight glasses of water a day)
- humidifier to ease a cough and sore throat
- vitamin A supplements
It is important to receive a measles vaccine because measles can lead to life-threatening complications, such as pneumonia and encephalitis (inflammation of the brain). In the United States, about two in 1,000 people die from measles annually. In fact, measles is the fifth leading cause of death and sickness in children worldwide, reports the Better Health Channel (Better Health).
Other complications associated with measles may include:
- ear infection
- miscarriage or preterm labor
- decrease in blood platelets
- severe diarrhea
Immunizations can help prevent a measles outbreak. The MMR vaccine is a three-in-one vaccination that can protect you and your children from the measles, mumps, and rubella. Children can receive their first MMR vaccination at 12 months (or sooner if traveling internationally), and their second dose between the ages of 4 and 6. Adults who have never received an immunization can request the vaccine from their doctor.
If you or a family member contracts the measles virus, limit interaction with others. This includes staying home from school or work and avoiding social activities.
Measles has a low death rate in healthy children and adults, and most people who contract the measles virus recover fully. The risk of complications is higher in children and adults with a weak immune system.
You cannot get measles more than once. After you’ve had the virus, you are immune for life.