In this article:
- Measles is an extremely contagious disease caused by an infection with a virus.
- An economical and safe vaccine is available for measles.
- Despite the availability of the vaccine, a breakout occurred in 2018, killing more than 140,000 people, most of them were children under 5 years of age.
- The disease progresses in a fixed pattern.
- Measles may spread through the air as well as close contact.
- Vaccination against measles is crucial before traveling to avoid getting infected from areas where it is prevalent, especially if you never had the infection before.
Measles is a disease that results from an infection with a virus belonging to the paramyxovirus family. It affects the respiratory system. Also known as rubeola, measles is extremely contagious and has a high incidence among children.
The latest WHO data, from 2017, relating to measles cases and deaths, shows an estimated 6.7 million instances in that particular year, with around 110,000 measles-related deaths, based on the 173,330 reported cases. (1)
Spread of Measles
An infection with the rubeola virus causes measles. This virus can be found in the mucosal layer of the nose and respiratory tract of an affected individual.
The disease commonly spreads through airborne droplets containing the patient’s respiratory and nasal secretions. (2) When the infected individual sneezes and coughs, airborne droplets that carry the virus are formed and expelled.
Measles may also spread in the following ways:
- Physical contact with an infected individual
- Contact with a surface contaminated by mucosal secretions of an infected individual
- Through saliva by sharing foods and drinks
- From mother to baby during the gestation period, labor, or feeding
Symptoms of Measles
It takes 1 or 2 weeks for measles to develop symptoms after the virus enters the host body. The measles infection can be characterized by an increase in body temperature (around or above 104°F).
There are different symptoms associated with measles, which include the following:
- Dry cough
- Body pains
- Soreness in the throat
- Runny nose
- Watering and swelling in the eyes
- Discomfort and fatigue
- Loss of appetite
- Light sensitivity
- Inflammation in lymph nodes
- Koplik’s spots (red spots with bluish-white centers in the mouth)
Diagnosis of Measles
Measles can be easily identified through its distinctive symptoms and a physical examination. The doctor may also evaluate your medical history. Urine or blood tests may be ordered to confirm the infection.
To detect the presence of the infection, a measles virus sandwich-capture immunoglobulin (IgM) antibody assay can be performed.
It is a marker test that detects the presence of antibodies generated against the measles virus in the blood. Blood samples collected between 3 days to 1 month after the appearance of the rash can be used for the assay.
Treatment for Measles
The clinical treatments available against measles target only the symptoms. No treatment is yet available for curing the disease, especially before the virus completes its course in the host body. The infection commonly lasts for 2 weeks.
Medications for symptom management should be taken to prevent complications. Ibuprofen or acetaminophen can be taken to reduce fever and alleviate pain.
Vitamin A intake can also help in managing the symptoms. The use of antibiotics is impractical as they can act only on bacteria and have no effect on the measles virus.
To assist proper recovery, keep the following things in mind:
- Avoid giving aspirin to children. Aspirin intake can cause Reye’s syndrome in children.
- Keep checking on your ward’s condition.
- Get immediate medical help to avoid complications.
- Avoid contact with people to prevent the spread of the disease.
- Medical attention is necessary during pregnancy. Contracting measles during pregnancy increases the risk of pneumonia and hospitalization and may also pose some risks to the baby.
Vaccinations Against Measles
The World Health Organization (WHO) recommends that measles vaccines should be administered to all individuals irrespective of their age group. Vaccines against measles are available as singular products or as combination vaccines, which include: (11)
- Measles-rubella vaccine (MR)
- Measles-mumps-rubella vaccine (MMR)
- Measles-mumps-rubella-varicella (MMRV) (4)
Vaccination is an effective way to prevent the development of measles. The measles vaccine has been efficiently used since the 1960s.
However, the incidence of measles in South America, the United States, and Africa has increased recently. Studies report a 300% global hike in reported measles cases in 2019, in comparison to the number of reported cases in the first quarter of 2018. (5)
The incidence of measles is high in underdeveloped and developing countries. People visiting such countries may act as carriers of the virus and spread it to the nonimmunized individuals in their respective countries.
Immunization of the majority of the population consequently lowers the risk of the spread of measles. Thus, as a preventive measure, the vaccination must be administered to everyone since no treatment is available.
If you belong to any of the following categories, mention your condition to your health care personnel before getting the vaccine:
- HIV/AIDS patient
- Cancer patient
- Using immunomodulatory medications
- Has a history of any blood disorder or low platelet count
- Vaccinated in the last month
- Recently received a blood transfusion
Patients suffering from any kind of ailment should not get vaccinated until they have fully recovered.
Babies are the highest-risk group for contracting measles. According to data, 90% of unimmunized babies get measles on exposure to the virus.
As indicated in the CDC guidelines, children should get vaccinated against measles when they are 12-15 months old. This dose has to be followed by a booster dose when they are 4-6 years old. (9)
Consult your pediatrician if you are traveling to countries with a high incidence of measles with your baby.
Unvaccinated adults can also contract the infection quickly. Consult your doctor for an MMR vaccine if you have never contracted measles and fall under any of the following categories:
- Born after 1957
- Uncertain about being vaccinated
For Pregnant Women
Contracting measles during pregnancy can adversely affect both the mother and the baby. (6)
During pregnancy, immunization should be avoided in the following cases:
- The individual has a weak immune system
- The individual suffered from anaphylaxis in a previous MMR vaccination
Complimentary Tips to Aid Relief from Measles
You can take the following measures to help relieve your symptoms:
- Take sponge baths using warm water to relieve the discomfort caused by fever.
- Consume lots of fluids to avoid dehydration.
- Get adequate sleep and rest.
- Consume healthy foods and increase the intake of nutrients to gain energy. Doing so helps in fighting the infection and boosting recovery.
- Use turmeric. Its antioxidant and antiseptic properties can help in recovery. (7)
- Consume bitter gourd, which is rich in antioxidants, minerals, and vitamins that can facilitate quick recovery. (8)
If your baby is suffering from measles, make sure to feed him/her at regular intervals. Breastmilk is the prime source of antibodies and nutrients for babies.
Prevention from Measles
It is important to take preventive measures against measles since no definitive treatment is available. The following tips can help in reducing the risk of measles:
- Avoid crowded places, especially when during a measles outbreak.
- Maintain proper hygiene. Wash your hands properly after coming in contact with an infected individual.
- Avoid physical contact with any individual suffering from measles. Avoid sharing eatables, drinks, and utensils with them.
- Do not touch your nose, eyes, or mouth before sanitizing your hands.
- Disinfect the surroundings of an infected individual regularly. This step helps in preventing the spread of the infection since the virus cannot survive outside the host body for more than 2 hours.
Risk Factors for Contracting Measles
Some individuals may be at a higher risk of contracting a measles infection. The risk factors include:
- Low vitamin A level
- Improper nourishment
- Compromised immune system due to immunodeficiency syndromes such as AIDS
- International travel
Complications Associated with Measles
The most common complications associated with measles include:
- Ear infection in children, which may cause hearing problems if not treated
- Febrile seizures due to raised body temperature
- Inflammation of the voice box, also known as laryngitis
- Croup, pneumonia, bronchitis, or other respiratory system infections
Measles may also cause severe complications, which include:
- Hepatitis or liver infection
- Squint (improper alignment of eyes)
- Encephalitis (inflammation in the brain)
Measles infection during pregnancy poses a high risk for both the fetus and mother. The complications may include:
- Premature delivery
- Still-born child
- Underweight child
What measures should be taken on contact with an infected person?
On coming in contact with an infected person, seek advice from your doctor. You may need to undergo treatment if you have never had a measles infection before or have not been vaccinated. The available treatments include:
- Vaccination within 72 hours of exposure
- Passive immunization if the exposure was 3-7 days ago, which involves the administration of immunoglobulins, followed by vaccination after 5 months
How long is an infected person contagious?
Measles can be contracted from an infected individual from 4 days before up to 4 days after the appearance of the rash.
Can you contract measles post-vaccination?
The chances of contracting measles after being vaccinated are low. The occurrence rate is around 3 in 100 people, according to the CDC. If an infection does occur, it is usually mild. (10)
Consult your doctor if you feel that you were not properly immunized. He may suggest a blood test to check the presence of immunoglobulins developed from the previous vaccination. (10)
What is the difference between rubeola and rubella?
Rubeola or measles is caused by the rubeola virus, whereas rubella or German measles is caused by the rubella virus. German measles is a mild infection characterized by skin rashes, raised body temperature, and inflammation in the lymph nodes.
Rubella produces severe symptoms only when it infects a pregnant woman in the first trimester. Vaccines are available against both kinds of viruses.
What is the difference between chickenpox and measles?
Chickenpox and measles are both viral infections caused by different microbes. The varicella-zoster virus causes chickenpox, which produces red spots on the body as symptoms. These spots may develop into blisters that induce pain.
Measles, on the other hand, is caused by the rubeola virus and produce rashes. You can get vaccinated against both diseases.
When to See a Doctor
Immediate medical attention should be given to children if they suffer from any of the following:
Individuals suffering from measles should get further medical care if they develop any of the following symptoms:
What you may ask your doctor:
- How long will the problem persist?
- What foods should I avoid?
- What measures can I take to avoid spreading the infection to others?
- Until when should I avoid public places?
- How do I keep my child isolated during an infection?
What your doctor may ask you:
- Since when were you experiencing the symptoms?
- Have you been immunized?
- Are the caretakers immunized?
- Do you have an existing medical condition?
Measles is a viral infection that spreads easily. Children, pregnant women, nonimmunized individuals, and people with weak immune systems are highly prone to contracting measles.
Due to the unavailability of treatment methods, prevention from measles is necessary. This can be achieved through vaccination.
Taking measures to alleviate the symptoms helps in faster recovery and prevents the development of complications. Medical attention is vital for pregnant women or those with persistent fever. Infected individuals should be kept under observation to track their condition.
Expert Answers (Q&A)
Answered by Dr. Brandi Lewis, MD (Pediatrician)
The rash from measles is typically not itchy. Measles has no treatment, but your doctor may prescribe vitamin A and an antiviral medicine to help speed up recovery.
Illness from measles may last up to 2 weeks. If there are complications from measles, then the symptoms and physical problems may take longer or even be permanent.
Measles in pregnancy is associated with premature labor and fetal death. Unfortunately, a high number of pregnant women without protection to measles have been documented.
If pregnant women are unsure whether they are immune to measles, it is important that they get tested.
Studies have shown that a mother’s recollection of receiving the recommended doses of MMR is unreliable. MMR is a vaccine against measles, mumps, and rubella (German measles).
Measles is extremely contagious. It is spread both by contact and by respiratory secretions. Therefore, it is highly likely that measles would spread from a mother to her infant if she were infected and breastfeeding.
A child with measles could infect the mother with the infection while breastfeeding. Measles has an infection rate of 90% if exposed to high-risk individuals. (12)
Vaccines can be taken at any time, but it is important to vaccinate according to the recommended immunization schedules. Failure to do so can lead to disease outbreaks.
However, if a person has never been vaccinated, it is never too late. It is always recommended to get the vaccine to protect yourself and others. There are times that even a third dose is recommended, such as during outbreaks.
One dose of the MMR vaccine may be enough to protect some adults. It is recommended that school-age children and high-risk adults receive two doses. (13)
If you are unsure if you fall into the category of high-risk individuals or if you are concerned that you may not be protected, you should speak with your doctor.
Measles has no treatment. However, fluids are encouraged, and over-the-counter medication can be used for pain and fever.
Measles can lead to serious complications, such as pneumonia, devastating neurological disease, brain swelling that may lead to seizures, and heart problems. When it comes to measles, prevention vaccination is the best thing to do. (14)
About Dr. Brandi Lewis, MD: Dr. Lewis is a full time pediatrician. She attended the University of Cincinnati, where she received her medical degree after which she completed her residency at Cincinnati Children’s Hospital Medical Center.
Dr. Lewis is board certified by the American Board of Pediatrics. She enjoys following children through all the different stages of growth and development as they grow into young adults. Her professional passions include child well-being, culinary medicine, and childhood obesity.