Rubeola (measles) is an infection caused by a virus that grows in the cells lining the throat and lungs. It’s a very contagious disease that spreads through the air whenever someone who is infected coughs or sneezes. People who catch the measles develop symptoms like a fever, cough, runny nose, and the telltale rash that is the hallmark of the disease. If measles isn’t treated, it can lead to complications like ear infection, pneumonia, and encephalitis (inflammation of the brain).
Rubeola (measles) is often confused with roseola and rubella (German measles), but these three conditions are different. Measles produces a splotchy reddish rash that spreads from head to foot. Roseola is a condition that affects infants and toddlers. It causes a rash to form on the trunk, which spreads to the upper arms and neck and fades within days. Rubella is a viral disease with symptoms including a rash and fever that last two to three days.
Within seven to 14 days after getting infected with the measles, the first symptoms will appear. The earliest symptoms feel like a cold or the flu, with a fever, cough, runny nose, and sore throat. Often the eyes get red and runny. Three to five days later, a red or reddish-brown rash forms and spreads down the body from head to foot.
Two to three days after you first notice measles symptoms, you may start to see tiny spots inside the mouth, all over the cheeks. These spots are usually red with blue-white centers. They’re called Koplik’s spots, named for pediatrician Henry Koplik, MD, who first described the early symptoms of measles in 1896. Koplik’s spots should fade as the other measles symptoms disappear.
The measles rash is red or reddish-brown in color. It starts on the face and works its way down the body over a few days. Eventually, it will cover the entire body with blotches of colored bumps—from the neck to the trunk, arms, and legs, until it finally reaches the feet. The rash lasts for five or six days in total.
There isn’t any real treatment for measles. Sometimes getting the measles, mumps, and rubella (MMR) vaccine within the first three days after being exposed to the virus can prevent the disease. The best advice for people who are already sick is to rest and give the body time to recover. Stay comfortable by drinking plenty of fluids and taking acetaminophen (Tylenol) for fever. Don’t give aspirin to children, because of the risk for a rare but serious condition called Reye’s syndrome.
About 30 percent of people who get the measles develop complications like pneumonia, ear infections, diarrhea, and encephalitis, according to the CDC. Pneumonia is an infection of the lungs that causes fever, chest pain, trouble breathing, and a cough that produces mucus. People whose immune system has been weakened by another disease can get an even more dangerous form of pneumonia.
About one out of every 1,000 children with measles will develop swelling of the brain called encephalitis, according to the CDC. Sometimes encephalitis starts right after the measles. In other cases, it takes months to emerge. Encephalitis can be very serious, leading to convulsions, deafness, and mental retardation in children. It is also dangerous for pregnant women, causing them to give birth too early or to have a baby born underweight.
Symptoms of the measles often disappear in the same order in which they first emerged. After a few days, the rash should start to fade. It may leave behind a brownish color on the skin, as well as some peeling. The fever and other measles symptoms will recede and you—or your child—should begin to feel better.