What You Should Know About the Measles Virus

Learn more about this preventable illness.

By Michael Bohl
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What You Need to Know About One of the Most Contagious Diseases Known to Man (3:27)

What is measles?

Measles is a highly contagious infectious disease caused by the measles virus. Measles is sometimes called rubeola, but this should not be confused with rubella or roseola, which are two different diseases. Measles often infects children and is one of the leading vaccine-preventable causes of death worldwide. Although the incidence of new cases had gone down in recent years, news of measles outbreaks across the United States have brought conversation about this disease to the forefront again.

How contagious is measles?

Measles is extremely contagious and can be spread through coughing and sneezing. A few things make the virus very easy to catch. First, people may spread measles up to four days before and four days after they have the rash, so they might not even know that they are contagious. Second, the virus is so infectious that 90 percent of non-immune people who come into contact with an infected person will end up getting infected themselves. And third, the virus can live in the air for up to two hours after an infected person has left the area, so you may be exposed to measles without even knowing it.

Who is at risk of getting measles?

Anybody who has not received the measles vaccine is at risk of developing measles. Other things that may make somebody more likely to catch the measles include being immunocompromised, taking steroid medications, or traveling to an area of the world where measles is common.

How can I protect myself against measles?

The best way to stay measles-free is to get vaccinated. The measles vaccine is 97 percent effective and is commonly given as a 2-shot series during childhood. The measles vaccine is combined with vaccinations for mumps and rubella and is commonly called the MMR vaccine. Unless you are too young or have certain medical disorders that preclude you from getting the MMR vaccine, there is no reason not to get vaccinated. If you are unsure if you have been vaccinated in the past, you can ask your doctor to order MMR titers, which will test your immunity to the three diseases.

How can I protect my community against measles?

Prevention of measles in a community depends on a concept called “herd immunity”. Herd immunity occurs when enough people in a community are vaccinated that the virus doesn’t have an opportunity to spread. When this happens, even the people who cannot be vaccinated for medical reasons are still protected. However, when too many people choose not to be vaccinated, herd immunity goes away — putting the most vulnerable at risk. This is what has been causing the recent outbreaks of measles in the United States. These outbreaks are entirely preventable as long as enough people get vaccinated.

What are the symptoms of measles?

Symptoms of measles generally appear 10-14 days after exposure. The common symptoms are fever and the “three C’s” – cough, coryza (runny nose), and conjunctivitis (red eyes). A few days later, white spots may appear in the mouth. After that, people infected with measles develop a rash. The rash is made up of small, flat, and raised red bumps that start on the head and face and then spread over the entire body. A high fever may accompany this rash. The rash then slowly resolves in the same order it appeared.

How is measles diagnosed?

Diagnosis of measles can typically be made clinically by the doctor recognizing your pattern of symptoms. For confirmation, a blood test can be done.

How is measles treated?

There is no treatment for measles and the disease typically resolves in two to three weeks. In some cases, acetaminophen can be given to reduce the fevers. Vitamin A supplementation may also help reduce the severity of illness.

What are the complications of having measles?

Although most people survive measles, some may need to be hospitalized and others can have lifelong consequences or even die from the disease. Other common complications of measles include ear infections, bronchitis, brain inflammation, and blindness. If you have any of these complications, additional treatment may be necessary.

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Article written by Michael Bohl