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Measles: What Is It, Symptoms, Treatment & Prevention

Dr Rohit Bhaskar
Dr Rohit Bhaskar
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Measles is a highly contagious viral disease that at one time affected nearly everyone before the age of 20 years. But with the development of a vaccine and widespread immunization, measles has become a very rare disease in the United States.

Although measles remains relatively rare in this country, there have been recent outbreaks all over the United States. These cases are occurring in children and adults who have not been vaccinated or have been incompletely vaccinated against measles.


The main reason for the increase in the number of cases of measles is that some parents are concerned that the measles vaccine – usually combined with the mumps and rubella (MMR) vaccine– may cause autism. Large studies have shown no connection between the MMR vaccine and autism, and the risks and complications associated with contracting measles can be very serious. The MMR vaccine has been shown to be extremely safe and not at all associated with autism.

What causes measles, and how is it spread?

Measles is caused by a virus that is spread by contact with droplets from the nose, mouth, or throat of an infected person. Symptoms of measles usually do not appear until 8-12 days after coming into contact with the virus.

What are the symptoms of measles?

The most common symptoms associated with measles include high fever, a barky cough, red or bloodshot eyes, runny nose, followed by a red rash, which starts at the head and then spreads downward. Other symptoms of measles include:

  • Sore throat
  • High fever
  • Muscle pain
  • Sensitivity to light

How is measles treated?

There is no treatment for measles. Once a person is infected, the virus must run its course (usually 10 to 14 days). Bed rest, acetaminophen, and other medications are often recommended or given to help treat symptoms.

What are the complications of measles?

There are many complications associated with measles. Some are very serious and occur most frequently in young children or adults who contract the disease. These include pneumonia, encephalitis, ear infections, and appendicitis.

Pneumonia and encephalitis are the most serious complications of measles and are life-threatening. Encephalitis is an inflammation of the brain that can lead to convulsions, hearing loss and mental retardation. This complicates measles in one out of of every 1,000 children.

When should my child be vaccinated for measles?

The MMR vaccine is often given in two shots. The first shot is given around the age of 12-15 months, and the second around 4 or 5 years of age. If a child has not been immunized, measles can still be prevented by receiving the vaccine within three days of exposure to the virus. As previously mentioned, concern about the vaccine causing autism is unwarranted, and all children should be immunized against measles.

Is there anybody who should not receive the MMR (measles, mumps, rubella) vaccine?

The measles vaccine should not be given to pregnant women, or to people who have leukemia, lymphoma, or a depressed immune system.

What is the prognosis (outlook) for measles?

The outcome for most cases of measles is excellent. Once the disease passes, the person will be protected against contracting it again. In cases where there are severe complications, the chances of long-term problems are less certain and vary on a case-by- case basis.

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