What is measles?
Measles is respiratory disease, meaning it first affects the parts of the body involved in breathing, such as the nose, throat, and lungs. It then spreads to the rest of the body and can cause serious complications. In the United States, one in five people who get the measles must be hospitalized, and one to three out of every 1000 die of complications.
Complications of measles include:
- Pneumonia or lung infection: this is the leading cause of death in children with measles
- Encephalitis: this is the swelling of the brain, and can lead to convulsions, permanent hearing loss, or intellectual disability
- Miscarriage, stillbirth, premature birth, or low birth weight
Signs of measles
People who get the measles often experience:
Fever and cough
A high fever is usually the first sign of measles. It appears 7-14 days after you are exposed to the virus. A cough, runny nose, and red, watery eyes start shortly thereafter. Your temperature may soar up over 104°F. The fever typically lasts four to seven days.
Two to three days after the first symptoms begin, small white spots may appear inside the mouth. These “Koplik spots” appear in 60-70% of people with the virus. They can be used to diagnose measles because no other illness causes them. Koplik spots look like grains of salt scattered over a bright red background.
The measles rash typically begins the day after Koplik spots appear. If you don’t get Koplik spots, the rash will appear 3-5 days after your first symptom starts. Flat red spots start on the face near your hairline and spread slowly down over the rest of your body over around three days.
Tiny, raised bumps may pop up on top of the flat red spots. The flat red spots may merge together as they spread. Your fever may spike highest when the rash appears. The measles rash lasts 5-6 days before fading.
Cause of measles
Measles is one of the most contagious (easily passed from person to person) diseases in the world. If you have the measles, up to 90% of the unvaccinated people around you will get measles, too.
The measles virus lives in the mucus of the nose and throat of an infected person. When someone who has the measles coughs, sneezes, or talks, invisible droplets carrying the virus are sprayed into the air and land on surfaces around them. The virus can live in the air or on surfaces like furniture or door knobs for hours after the infected person leaves the room.
If someone else breathes in these droplets or touches an infected surface and then touches their face, they can get measles. Two doses of the measles, mumps, and rubella (MMR) vaccine provide 99% protection against the disease for the rest of your life.
Babies are usually given the first dose at 12-15 months and the second at 4-6 years old. Teens and adults born later than 1957 should get two doses (28 days apart) if they have not been vaccinated. If you were only given one dose as a child, you can get the second dose now. If you aren’t sure if you’ve been vaccinated, it is safe to get the vaccine again.
The only people who shouldn’t get vaccinated are newborns, pregnant women, and people whose immune systems don’t work well. It is important that everyone else be vaccinated to keep measles from spreading to these people who can’t be protected by the vaccine.
Diagnosis of measles
A doctor can usually diagnose measles based on your symptoms, especially the rash and Koplik spots. Your doctor may order lab tests to confirm their diagnosis: bloodwork, a throat swab, and/or a urine sample.
Treatments for measles
There is no treatment that can cure measles. Antibiotics only work against bacteria, so they are not helpful against the measles virus. However, your doctor may prescribe antibiotics if you develop a bacterial infection such as pneumonia as a complication of measles.
Children who have measles may be given vitamin A. People who are low in vitamin A tend to have more severe cases of measles with more complications. Even children with healthy diets tend to have low vitamin A during a measles infection. Two doses of vitamin A taken 24 hours apart can reduce the risk of blindness and death.
Health Solutions From Our Sponsors
National Foundation for Infectious Diseases: "Measles."
StatPearls: "Koplik Spots."
World Health Organization: "Measles."
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