Trusted medical advice from the
American Academy of Family Physicians.


What is measles?

Measles (also called rubeola) is a serious respiratory illness. This means it affects the lungs and breathing tubes. It also causes a rash and a fever. It is a very contagious disease. It can be spread to others very easily. In rare cases, it can be deadly.

Measles used to be a common childhood illness. Then a vaccine was created to fight against it. Now, in the United States, measles has been almost completely eliminated. But the disease is still common in other parts of the world.

Symptoms of measles

Measles often starts with the following symptoms:

  • High fever
  • Runny nose
  • Cough
  • Red, watery eyes

A few days after these symptoms start, tiny white spots called Koplik spots may appear inside the mouth. Following this, a rash of small, flat red spots will appear on your skin. Sometimes small raised bumps may appear on top of the flat red spots. The rash usually starts on the face and then spreads down the rest of the body. After a few days, the fever and rash start to slowly go away.

Symptoms usually start 8 to 12 days after you’ve been exposed to the virus. You are contagious for 3 to 5 days before the rash breaks out. The contagious period continues for 4 days after the rash appears.

What causes measles?

Measles is caused by a virus. The virus is spread when an infected person breathes, coughs, or sneezes. You can catch measles by being in the same room as an infected person, even if that person has been gone for up to 2 hours. It is very contagious. If you are exposed to measles and you haven’t received the vaccine, you will likely catch the virus.

Most cases of measles in the United States come from an unvaccinated person who has been traveling to a region where the virus is more common. These areas include Europe, Asia, the Pacific Islands, and Africa. In addition, sometimes people with measles travel into the United States and spread the disease to unvaccinated people. This includes children who are too young to be vaccinated.

Those unvaccinated people at highest risk of catching measles are:

  • Infants
  • Pregnant women
  • People with weakened immune systems

How is measles diagnosed?

Your doctor will examine you. He or she will ask you about your symptoms. Usually doctors can diagnose measles based on the rash and the Koplik spots.

Can measles be prevented or avoided?

Measles is almost completely preventable through the measles vaccine. The vaccine is called the MMR shot. MMR stands for measles, mumps, and rubella. The one vaccine protects you from all 3 diseases. The MMR shot is a very safe vaccine. Doctors recommend that children get 2 doses of the vaccine for the best protection. Your child will need one shot when they are 12-15 months old, and another shot when they are 4-6 years old. Ask your doctor about the right time for vaccinating your child.

Doctors can also give at-risk people who are unvaccinated an injection of measles antibodies if they are exposed to the disease. The antibodies can prevent measles from developing or make symptoms less severe.

Measles treatment

There is no cure for measles. The disease has to run its course. Treatment usually involves relieving symptoms. This can include:

  • Taking over-the-counter pain relievers for pain or fever. Some OTC pain relievers include acetaminophen (1 brand name: Tylenol) or ibuprofen (1 brand name: Advil). Never give aspirin to a child who has a viral illness. Aspirin has been linked to Reye syndrome, which can affect the brain and liver.
  • Drinking plenty of fluids.
  • Getting extra rest.

It is important to keep your child out of school or child care when they have measles. They need to stay away from anyone who may not have been vaccinated against the disease.

Living with measles

Measles used to be common, before the vaccine was developed. Some people think it isn’t a harmful disease. But measles can cause serious health problems. Children under age 5 are most at risk of complications from measles. About 1 in 4 people who get measles need to be hospitalized.

Common complications of measles include ear infections and diarrhea. Severe complications could include:

  • Pneumonia (infection of the lungs). This is the most common cause of death from measles in young children.
  • Encephalitis (swelling of the brain). This can leave a child deaf or with an intellectual disability.

It is important that you and your child get the measles vaccine. It provides long-lasting protection from the disease.

Call your doctor right away if you think your child has measles or has been exposed to it.

Questions to ask your doctor

  • My child has been exposed to measles. What should I watch out for?
  • How long do I need to keep my child away from others?
  • What signs should I look out for that could mean my child is developing complications from measles?
  • Why is it important that my child gets the MMR vaccine?
  • Can adults get the MMR vaccine?
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