What Is Measles? Symptoms, Causes, Treatment

What Is Measles? Symptoms, Causes, Treatment

Measles is a contagious viral disease that spreads through the air and affects your respiratory system (lungs). The disease causes symptoms such as high fever, cough, and runny nose, and may lead to serious complications, including death. Fortunately, the measles vaccine helps protect you from contracting the virus and developing symptoms.

Still, measles continues to spread globally. In fact, the World Health Organization estimated that more than 128,000 people died of measles in 2021. In most cases, measles-related deaths are among children under five years old who have not received a measles vaccine or only received one of the two recommended vaccine doses.

In the United States, measles has been largely eliminated, which means that the spread of the disease is not common. But people in the U.S. get sick from measles each year. Most cases occur in those who have traveled internationally to areas where measles is more common. However, measles can also spread quickly within U.S. communities where many people are not vaccinated.


Measles symptoms can be very serious, particularly among babies and young children. Most symptoms develop one to two weeks after exposure to the virus. There are generally three phases of measles and symptoms can last up to 14 days.

The first phase of measles symptoms occurs one to two weeks after you’ve been exposed to the virus. Your symptoms may include:

  • High fever above 104 degrees Fahrenheit or 40 degrees Celsius
  • Cough
  • Runny nose
  • Red, watery eyes

The second phase of symptoms occurs two to three days after you’ve experienced the initial symptoms of measles. The most common symptom during this phase is white spots (known as Koplik spots) that appear in your mouth. Generally, these spots develop in more than 60% of people with measles and can last for three days or longer.

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The third and final stage of measles causes a measles rash. The rash typically begins on your hairline and spreads down your body. The rash may look like flat red spots on your body that eventually develop into small raised bumps. A measles rash spreads for a few days and can last up to a week. Most people who develop a rash also experience a high fever.


Measles is a virus that spreads from person to person. When someone is sick with measles and sneezes or coughs, you can breathe in the virus from the droplets and germs that spread. You can also develop measles if you touch a surface with measles germs and then touch your eyes, nose, or mouth.

It’s important to note that measles is highly contagious and spreads quickly. Research suggests that if you have measles, up to nine out of 10 people you come into contact with can also get sick if they are not vaccinated. Measles can also spread up to four days before and after you experience a measles rash.

Risk factors

While anyone can develop measles, the groups who are most vulnerable to experiencing symptoms include:

  • People who have not received or choose to not receive the measles vaccine
  • Those who live in areas with limited vaccination programs or lack of access to healthcare
  • Children who are too young to receive vaccinations
  • People who are pregnant, immunocompromised, or have a vitamin A deficiency
  • Those who have recently traveled to areas where measles is more common


If you think you or your child may have measles, it’s essential to contact a healthcare provider immediately. Keep in mind: in areas where measles isn’t common, healthcare providers may not suspect that your symptoms are due to measles. If you’ve traveled to an area where measles is more prevalent, it’s important to share that information with your provider so they can order the appropriate tests to confirm a diagnosis.

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Before ordering tests, your healthcare provider will ask about your medical history and perform a physical exam. If they determine that you are displaying hallmark symptoms of measles, they can test you for the virus with one or more of the following exams:

  • Blood tests
  • Throat swabs
  • Urine samples


There isn’t a cure for measles, so treatment focuses on reducing your symptoms, preventing complications, and supporting your body in fighting the disease. This may include:

  • Getting plenty of rest
  • Drinking more fluids (e.g., water) to prevent dehydration
  • Taking vitamin A supplements or getting doses of vitamin A through an intravenous (IV) injection or infusion
  • Eating nutritious meals to fuel your body’s immune system response
  • Using over-the-counter medications such as Advil (ibuprofen) to reduce pain

If you have measles, your healthcare provider may also recommend that you isolate yourself from other people to prevent spreading the disease.

How to Prevent Measles

Because measles is highly contagious, prevention is critical. The best way to prevent contracting measles is to get vaccinated. The measles vaccine has been used globally since 1971 and is the most effective tool to limit the spread of the disease.

The measles vaccine is a routine immunization that children receive from their pediatrician. Your baby can receive their first dose between 12 and 15 months old and their second dose between four and six years of age.

You may see the vaccine on your child’s immunization schedule as the MMR vaccine, which includes protection against measles, mumps, and rubella. Some vaccines can also protect against chickenpox, or varicella (which may be listed as the MMRV vaccine).

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If you’re an adult and have not received the measles vaccine, it’s important to speak with your healthcare provider before traveling to areas where measles is more common. They may often recommend that you receive a vaccine dose before your trip.


If you or a loved one develop measles, it’s imperative to seek medical care to prevent further complications from occurring. It’s common for children with measles to experience ear infections and diarrhea. Your child’s healthcare provider can recommend additional treatment if either of these conditions develops.

If measles is left untreated, there are several complications you can experience, including:

  • Pneumonia
  • Encephalitis, or swelling of the brain
  • Pregnancy complications including preterm labor (giving birth to a premature baby) or having a baby with a low birth weight
  • Bronchitis
  • Subacute sclerosing panencephalitis (SSPE), a fatal (deadly) condition that affects the central nervous system, including the brain and spinal cord

A Quick Review

Measles is a highly contagious viral infection that affects the respiratory system and causes life-threatening complications if left untreated. Most people contract the virus if they are not vaccinated against measles and come into contact with someone who has the disease.

Fortunately, the measles vaccine is very effective in preventing measles. Parents can vaccinate their children against measles as part of routine childhood immunizations. If you think you or your child may be sick with measles, it’s essential to seek medical care to prevent further complications.


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