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Measles: What You Need to Know

You may have heard that cases of measles are on the rise lately, but there’s no reason to panic. Here’s what you need to know about measles and how to keep your family safe.

What Is Measles?

Measles is a very contagious infection that causes a total-body skin rash and flu-like symptoms. It’s caused by a virus, so there's no specific medical treatment for it. Like other viruses, measles has to run its course.

Why Are More People Getting Measles?

Widespread immunization against measles has made it a rare infection in the U.S. But outbreaks still happen, especially in areas where people aren't vaccinated.

What Are the Signs & Symptoms of Measles?

The first symptoms of measles are usually a hacking cough, runny nose, high fever, and red eyes. Kids also may have Koplik's spots (small red spots with blue-white centers) inside the mouth before the rash starts.

A red or reddish-brown skin rash breaks out 3–5 days after symptoms start, sometimes along with a high fever up to 104°F (40°C).

The rash usually begins as flat red spots on the forehead. It spreads to the rest of the face, then down the neck and torso to the arms, legs, and feet.

How Do People Get Measles?

Measles spreads when people breathe in or have direct contact with measles-infected fluid. The virus passes to other people through droplets sprayed into the air when someone with measles sneezes or coughs.

People with measles can spread the disease as early as 4 days before the telltale rash appears.

A person with measles is most contagious while they have a fever, runny nose, and cough.

How Can I Protect My Child Against Measles?

You can protect your kids against measles by making sure they get the measles-mumps-rubella vaccine (MMR).

For most kids, measles protection is part of the measles-mumps-rubella vaccine (MMR) or measles-mumps-rubella-varicella vaccine (MMRV). These vaccines are given in two doses: when kids are 12–15 months old (or earlier, if they will be traveling internationally) and again when they're 4–6 years old.

Most people become immune to measles after their first vaccine. Others develop immunity the second time they're vaccinated. Immunity lasts a lifetime.

What if My Child Isn't Vaccinated or Can't Get Vaccinated For Measles?

If your child isn’t vaccinated against measles, it's not too late. They can get the vaccine at any time. If your child can’t get the vaccine or has a weak immune system, the best way to prevent measles is to wash hands well and often and avoid being around people who are sick with measles.

My Child Isn't Vaccinated or Can't Get Vaccinated. What if They're Exposed to Measles?

If you think your child was exposed to measles, tell your doctor right away. Doctors can give an injection of measles antibodies (called immune globulin) to at-risk people who are exposed to measles. It's most effective when given within 6 days of exposure. These antibodies can either prevent measles or make its symptoms less severe.

A dose of the measles vaccine also can help protect unvaccinated people from getting sick after exposure to measles if they get it within 3 days.

Where Can I Get the Measles (MMR) Vaccine for My Child?

You can get the MMR vaccine at your primary care provider's office or vaccine clinics at most local health departments.

What if My Child Has Symptoms of Measles?

Call the doctor right away if you think your child has measles. While there's no specific medical treatment for measles, home care can help your child feel better:

  • Encourage your child to drink lots of liquids.
  • Help your child get plenty of rest.

If a fever makes your child uncomfortable, give a fever medicine such as acetaminophen or ibuprofen. Follow the package directions for how much to give and how often. Never give aspirin to a child or teen who has a viral illness, as such use is linked to a serious illness called Reye syndrome, which can be life-threatening.

Let your doctor know if your child seems to be getting sicker. Measles can lead to other problems, such as ear infections, croup, diarrhea, pneumonia, and encephalitis (swelling of the brain).

While they have measles, kids should stay home from school, daycare, and other community or group activities to prevent spreading the infection.

How Can I Find Out if There's a Measles Outbreak Near Me?

Reviewed by: Melanie L. Pitone, MD
Date Reviewed: Feb 23, 2024

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