Measles is a highly contagious viral infection that affects your respiratory system first and may lead to serious complications. Symptoms include a widespread rash, fever, cough, and white spots inside the mouth. Prompt medical care is advised.

Children, individuals with compromised immune systems, and pregnant people may have a higher chance of developing measles, or rubeola, after exposure to the virus that causes it. However, anyone may get the virus and develop the condition.

In 2021, about 128,000 people died from measles around the world. Most of these were unvaccinated children under age 5 years. In recent years in the United States, cases of measles have been increasing.

Here’s what you need to know about measles symptoms, complications, treatment, and more.

Symptoms of measles generally appear within about 14 days after you’ve been exposed to the virus.

A widespread skin rash is a classic sign of measles. It commonly develops on your head first and slowly spreads to other parts of the body, covering most of the skin.

The measles rash may look like flat, tiny spots and raised bumps that eventually join together in a rash from head to toe. Depending on your skin color, the rash may appear red, brown, blue, or different from the rest of your skin.

Measles is typically not itchy.

Other measles symptoms may include:

  • cough
  • high fever
  • runny nose
  • eye irritation, including redness and swelling
  • sore throat
  • white spots inside the mouth, called Koplik spots

Learn more about what measles looks like.

The incubation period for measles is usually between 11 and 12 days. The incubation period refers to the time that passes between exposure to the virus and when symptoms first appear.

During this time, you may begin to experience nonspecific measles symptoms, such as fever, cough, eye irritation, and a runny nose. “Nonspecific symptoms” refers to symptoms that may also develop with other health conditions.

About 2–4 days after the first symptoms appear, a rash will start to develop. The rash typically lasts 6 days, but it may last up to 21 days.

The virus that causes measles can be spread from one person to another as early as 4 days before a rash develops. Measles may continue to be contagious until about 4 days after the rash disappears.

Common minor complications of measles may include ear infections and diarrhea. Experts advise that you take steps to manage these complications.

Serious complications of measles that require immediate medical care may include:

Measles may also lead to death in vulnerable individuals.

Measles is caused by a virus from the Paramyxoviridae family. Viruses are tiny parasitic microbes or microorganisms.

Measles is highly contagious. Up to 9 out of 10 people who are exposed to the virus will develop the infection. A person with measles can spread the virus to about 9–18 individuals.

The virus that causes measles is transmitted through the air or by direct contact with droplets when someone with measles breathes, sneezes, talks, or coughs near you.

You may also be exposed to the virus if you come into contact with an object that has droplets that contain the virus on it, and then you touch your face, eyes, nose, or mouth. The measles virus can remain alive in the air or on surfaces for up to 2 hours.

Once you’ve been exposed to it, the virus enters your body and invades host cells. Then, it uses components inside those cells to complete its life cycle.

The measles virus infects your respiratory tract first. It eventually spreads to other parts of your body through your bloodstream.

Measles is known to occur only in humans and not in animals.

A healthcare professional may diagnose measles by examining your rash and assessing other symptoms, including white spots in your mouth, fever, and cough. They may want to confirm the diagnosis with a blood test that detects the virus.

The rash may not be evident for a few days after you’re exposed to the measles virus. If you notice any other symptoms or already have the rash, it’s important to let a healthcare professional know as soon as possible.

Unlike with bacterial infections, antibiotics do not work for viral infections. The virus and related symptoms typically go away on their own in about 3 weeks. For that reason, measles treatment aims to relieve your symptoms and reduce the chance of complications.

If you’ve been exposed to the virus that causes measles, a healthcare professional may take the following actions, even before you experience symptoms:

  • administering a measles vaccine, within 72 hours of exposure
  • prescribing a dose of immune proteins called immunoglobulin, within 6 days of exposure

For acute symptoms like cough and fever, they may recommend:

  • taking over-the-counter medications
  • resting to help boost your immune system
  • drinking plenty of fluids
  • using a humidifier to ease a cough and sore throat
  • adding vitamin A supplements to your routine

Here are some pictures of what a measles rash may look like.

Yes, adults can get measles, and complications may be more likely. People who haven’t received the vaccine have a higher chance of developing measles after exposure to the virus.

If you are over age 20 years and have been in contact with someone who has measles, it’s highly advised that you promptly contact a healthcare professional and take all the precautions not to pass the virus to someone else.

Before receiving their first dose of the vaccine, around age 1, babies are able to contract the measles virus.

Babies receive some protection from measles through passive immunity, which is provided from parent to child through the placenta and during nursing.

However, research from 2021 indicates that this immunity depends on the mother’s antibody levels and may last only until infants are about 7 months old.

Children under age 5 years are more likely to develop complications of measles if they aren’t vaccinated.

You may have heard rubella referred to as German measles. But measles and rubella are actually caused by two different viruses.

Rubella isn’t as contagious as measles. But it can cause serious complications during pregnancy.

Even though different viruses cause measles and rubella, they’re similar in several ways. Both viruses:

  • can spread through the air when a person coughs or sneezes
  • cause fever and have a distinctive rash
  • occur only in humans

The measles-mumps-rubella (MMR) and measles-mumps-rubella-varicella (MMRV) vaccines help prevent against both measles and rubella.

You may reduce the chance of getting measles and developing complications by taking any of the following steps.


Getting vaccinated is the best way to help prevent measles. Two doses of the measles vaccine are 97% effective at preventing measles.

There are two vaccines available — the MMR vaccine and the MMRV vaccine. The MMR vaccine is a three-in-one vaccination that can protect you from measles, mumps, and rubella. The MMRV vaccine protects against the same conditions as the MMR vaccine but also includes protection against chickenpox.

Children can receive their first vaccination at age 12 months, or sooner if they are traveling internationally. They can receive their second dose between the ages of 4 and 6 years. Adults who have never received an immunization can request the vaccine at any age.

The vaccine is not recommended for people who:

  • have had a previous life threatening reaction to the measles vaccine or its components
  • are pregnant
  • are immunocompromised, which can include people with HIV or AIDS, those undergoing cancer treatment, or individuals taking medications that suppress the immune system

Side effects of vaccination are typically mild and disappear in a few days. They can include fever and a mild rash.

In rare cases, the vaccine has been linked to low platelet count or seizures. Most children and adults who receive a measles vaccine don’t experience side effects, though.

Some people believe that the measles vaccine can cause autism in children. As a result, an intense amount of research has been devoted to this topic over many years. Experts have found no link between vaccines and autism so far.

Vaccination isn’t just important for protecting you and your family. It’s also important for protecting people who can’t be vaccinated.

When more people are vaccinated against a disease, it’s less likely to circulate within the population. This is called herd immunity. To achieve herd immunity against measles, approximately 96% of the population must be vaccinated.

Other measles prevention methods

Not everyone can receive the measles vaccination. But you can still help prevent the spread of measles in other ways.

If you’re susceptible to infection, consider the following tips:

  • Practice good hand hygiene. Wash your hands before eating, after using the bathroom, and before touching your face, mouth, or nose.
  • Do not share personal items with people who may be exposed to the virus. This can include things like eating utensils, drinking glasses, and toothbrushes.
  • Avoid direct contact with people who are coughing, have runny nose, or feel generally unwell

If you have measles, consider the following:

  • Stay home from work or school and other public places until measles is resolved. This is at least 4 days after the measles rash disappears.
  • Avoid contact with people who may be susceptible to infection, such as infants too young to be vaccinated and immunocompromised people.
  • Cover your nose and mouth if you need to cough or sneeze. Dispose of all used tissues promptly. If you don’t have a tissue available, sneeze into the crook of your elbow, not into your hand.
  • Be sure to wash your hands frequently and disinfect any surfaces or objects that you touch.

Pregnant people who don’t have immunity to measles may develop the infection if they are exposed to the virus.

Pregnancy may increase the chances of complications from measles, such as pneumonia. Additionally, these pregnancy and birth complications are also possible:

Measles can also be transmitted during delivery if the birthing parent has an active measles infection. This is called congenital measles. Babies with congenital measles may develop a rash shortly after birth and may have a high chance of complications.

If you’re pregnant, don’t have immunity to measles, and believe that you’ve been exposed, it’s a good idea to contact your healthcare professional immediately. Receiving an injection of immunoglobulin may help reduce the chance of measles infection.

Measles has a low death rate in children and adults with optimal immune systems. Most people who contract the measles virus recover fully.

The risk of measles complications is higher in the following groups:

  • children under age 5 years
  • adults over age 20 years
  • pregnant people
  • people with a weakened immune system
  • individuals who are malnourished
  • people with vitamin A deficiency

Approximately 30% of people with measles experience one or more complications.

It is highly unlikely that you will get measles more than once. After you have had the virus, your body typically develops immunity.

Measles results from a viral infection. It is highly contagious and may lead to serious complications and death among children and adults who have not received the vaccine.

Measles and its potential complications are preventable through vaccination. Vaccination not only protects you and the people close to you, but it also prevents the measles virus from circulating in your community and affecting people who can’t be vaccinated.

Most people recover from measles within 3 weeks. Early diagnosis helps prevent complications. If you think you’ve been exposed to the measles virus, promptly contacting a healthcare professional is highly advised.