Measles, or rubeola, is a viral infection that starts in the respiratory system. It still remains a significant cause of death worldwide, despite the availability of a safe, effective vaccine.

There were about 110,000 global deaths related to measles in 2017, most of them in children under the age of 5, according to the World Health Organization (WHO). Measles cases have also been increasing in the United States in recent years.

Learn more about the symptoms of measles, how it spreads, and how it can be prevented.

Symptoms of measles generally first appear within 10 to 12 days of exposure to the virus. They include:

A widespread skin rash is a classic sign of measles. This rash can last up to 7 days and generally appears within 14 days of exposure to the virus. It commonly develops on the head and slowly spreads to other parts of the body.

Measles is caused by infection with a virus from the paramyxovirus family. Viruses are tiny parasitic microbes. Once you’ve been infected, the virus invades host cells and uses cellular components to complete its life cycle.

The measles virus infects the respiratory tract first. However, it eventually spreads to other parts of the body through the bloodstream.

Measles is only known to occur in humans and not in other animals. There are 24 known genetic types of measles, although only 6 are currently circulating.

Measles can be spread through the air from respiratory droplets and small aerosol particles. An infected person can release the virus into the air when they cough or sneeze.

These respiratory particles can also settle on objects and surfaces. You can become infected if you come into contact with a contaminated object, such as a door handle, and then touch your face, nose, or mouth.

The measles virus can live outside of the body for longer than you may think. In fact, it can remain infectious in the air or on surfaces for up to two hours.

Measles is highly contagious. This means that the infection can spread very easily from person to person.

A susceptible person that’s exposed to the measles virus has a 90 percent chance of becoming infected. Additionally, an infected person can go on to spread the virus to anywhere between 9 and 18 susceptible individuals.

A person that has measles can spread the virus to others before they even know that they have it. An infected person is contagious for four days before the characteristic rash appears. After the rash appears, they’re still contagious for another four days.

The main risk factor for catching measles is being unvaccinated. Additionally, some groups are at a higher risk of developing complications from measles infection, including young children, people with a weakened immune system, and pregnant women.

If you suspect that you have measles or have been exposed to someone with measles, contact your doctor immediately. They can evaluate you and direct you where to be seen to determine if you have the infection.

Doctors can confirm measles by examining your 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 they suspect you may have measles based on your history and observation, your doctor will order a blood test to check for the measles virus.

There’s no specific treatment for measles. Unlike bacterial infections, viral infections aren’t sensitive to antibiotics. The virus and symptoms typically disappear in about two or three weeks.

There are some interventions available for people who may have been exposed to the virus. These can help prevent an infection or lessen its severity. They include:

  • a measles vaccine, given within 72 hours of exposure
  • a dose of immune proteins called immunoglobulin, taken within six days of exposure

Your doctor may recommend the following to help you recover:

Although it’s often associated with childhood illness, adults can get measles too. People who aren’t vaccinated are at a higher risk of catching the disease.

It’s generally accepted that adults born during or before 1957 are naturally immune to measles. This is because the vaccine was first licensed in 1963. Before then, most people had been naturally exposed to the infection by their adolescent years and became immune as a result.

According to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC), serious complications are not only more common in young children, but also in adults over the age of 20. These complications can include things like pneumonia, encephalitis, and blindness.

If you’re an adult who hasn’t been vaccinated or isn’t sure of their vaccination status, you should see your doctor to receive the vaccination. At least one dose of the vaccine is recommended for unvaccinated adults.

The measles vaccine isn’t given to children until they’re at least 12 months old. Before receiving their first dose of the vaccine is the time they’re most vulnerable to being infected with the measles virus.

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

However, research has shown that this immunity can be lost in just over 2.5 months after birth or the time breastfeeding is discontinued.

Children under 5 years of age are more likely to have complications due to measles. These can include things like pneumonia, encephalitis, and ear infections that can result in hearing loss.

The incubation period of an infectious disease is the time that passes between exposure and when symptoms develop. The incubation period for measles is between 10 and 14 days.

After the initial incubation period, you may begin to experience nonspecific symptoms, such as fever, cough, and runny nose. The rash will begin to develop several days later.

It’s important to remember that you can still spread the infection to others for four days prior to developing the rash. If you think you’ve been exposed to measles and haven’t been vaccinated, you should contact your doctor as soon as possible.

In addition to a classic measles infection, there are also several other types of measles infections that you can get.

Atypical measles occurs in people who received a killed measles vaccine between 1963 and 1967. When exposed to measles, these individuals come down with an illness that has symptoms such as high fever, rash, and sometimes pneumonia.

Modified measles occurs in people who’ve been given post-exposure immunoglobulin and in infants who still have some passive immunity. Modified measles is typically milder than a regular case of measles.

Hemorrhagic measles is rarely reported in the United States. It causes symptoms like high fever, seizures, and bleeding into the skin and mucus membranes.

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. However, it can cause serious complications if a woman develops the infection while pregnant.

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

  • can be spread through the air from coughing and sneezing
  • cause fever and a distinctive rash
  • occur only in humans

Both measles and rubella are included in the measles-mumps-rubella (MMR) and measles-mumps-rubella-varicella (MMRV) vaccines.

There a few ways to prevent becoming ill with measles.

Vaccination

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

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 infections as the MMR vaccine and also includes protection against chickenpox.

Children can receive their first 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.

Some groups shouldn’t receive a vaccination against measles. These groups include:

  • people who’ve had a previous life-threatening reaction to the measles vaccine or its components
  • pregnant women
  • immunocompromised individuals, which can include people with HIV or AIDS, people undergoing cancer treatment, or people on medications that suppress the immune system

Side effects to vaccination are typically mild and disappear in a few days. They can include things like fever and 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.

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

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 percent of the population must be vaccinated.

Other prevention methods

Not everyone can receive the measles vaccination. But there are other ways that you can help to prevent the spread of measles.

If you’re susceptible to infection:

  • Practice good hand hygiene. Wash your hands before eating, after using the bathroom, and before touching your face, mouth, or nose.
  • Don’t share personal items with people who may be ill. This can include things like eating utensils, drinking glasses, and toothbrushes.
  • Avoid coming into contact with people who are sick

If you’re sick with measles:

  • Stay home from work or school and other public places until you aren’t contagious. This is four days after you first develop the measles rash.
  • Avoid contact with people who may be vulnerable 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 to disinfect any surfaces or objects that you touch frequently.

Pregnant women who don’t have immunity to measles should take care to avoid exposure during their pregnancy. Coming down with measles during your pregnancy can have significant negative health effects on both the mother and fetus.

Pregnant women are at an increased risk for complications from measles such as pneumonia. Additionally, having measles while pregnant can lead to the following pregnancy complications:

Measles can also be transmitted from mother to child if the mother has measles close to her delivery date. This is called congenital measles. Babies with congenital measles have a rash after birth or develop one shortly afterward. They’re at an increased risk of complications, which can be life-threatening.

If you’re pregnant, don’t have immunity to measles, and believe that you’ve been exposed, you should contact your doctor immediately. Receiving an injection of immunoglobulin may help to prevent an infection.

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 the following groups:

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

Approximately 30 percent of people with measles experience one or more complications. Measles can lead to life-threatening complications, such as pneumonia and inflammation of the brain (encephalitis).

Other complications associated with measles may include:

You can’t get measles more than once. After you’ve had the virus, you’re immune for life.

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