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Tell me more about measles

Measles is an upper respiratory disease caused by a virus that replicates in the cells of the throat. The virus also causes a generalized rash, and the rash is preceded by a trio of cough, runny nose, and conjunctivitis (pinkeye).

How is measles transmitted?

Measles is one of the most contagious diseases currently known. It is estimated that a sick person will infect 90% of his or her non-immune contacts.

Because the virus replicates in the throat and the lungs, large amounts of virus are expelled in droplets when an infected person coughs or sneezes. The virus survives for up to 2 hours outside of the body, and so can also be transmitted from inanimate objects contaminated by the measles virus. Very small amounts of virus particles are required to cause an infection, which means that unvaccinated persons have a very high probability of contracting measles.

What are the symptoms of measles?

The main symptom of measles is the systemic rash (covering the body) which first erupts around the hairline and gradually proceeds down the body over a course of 3-6 days. A high fever (103oF to 105oF) typically accompanies the rash, along with cough, runny nose, and red, watery eyes. In the days preceding the onset of the rash, there will be small white spots of dead tissue in the mouth, known as Koplik's spots, which are very diagnostic of measles.

A person with measles is considered to be contagious from four days before to four days after the onset of the rash.

While measles itself tends to be unpleasant, it is the relatively frequent complications of measles that make the disease so dangerous. Diarrhea and pneumonia are common, and up to one-fifth (20%) of all cases require hospitalization. Because the measles virus also attacks the cells of the immune system, secondary infections during or immediately following measles infection are also common. Death occurs in 1-3 out of 1,000 cases.

How is measles treated?

Currently, there are no specific treatment for measles itself, only supportive care for those who are ill. Treatments may exist for measles complications, however. If vaccination is performed shortly after exposure to a measles case, it may lessen or prevent the course of measles disease in non-immune persons. Because of the rarity of measles in the US, it is crucial that you see a medical professional as soon as you suspect you or your loved one may have measles.

How can I prevent measles?

A reliable, safe, effective vaccine for measles has existed since the early 1960s; in current form, it is combined with the vaccines for mumps and rubella in the MMR vaccine. Two doses of this vaccine are required to produce adequate immunity in large enough percentages of the population to prevent an outbreak.

Since the vaccine contains a live, attenuated (weakened) virus, it is not recommended for people with advanced HIV disease or other immunodeficiencies. If you're an adult born after 1957 and have not yet received two doses of the live, attenuated vaccine, then it is advised you get vaccinated now.

The CDC advises that the following adults get vaccinated:

  • You are a college student, trade school student, or other student beyond high school.
  • You work in a hospital or other medical facility.
  • You travel internationally, or are a passenger on a cruise ship.
  • You are a woman of childbearing age.

The CDC advises that the following adults NOT get vaccinated:

  • You had blood tests that show you are immune to measles, mumps, and rubella.
  • You are a man born before 1957.
  • You are a woman born before 1957 who is sure she is not having more children, has already had rubella vaccine, or has had a positive rubella test.
  • You already had two doses of MMR or one dose of MMR plus a second dose of measles vaccine.
  • You already had one dose of MMR and are not at high risk of measles exposure.

"Pink Book on Immunization"


MedlinePlus Info on Measles: