On-Call Advice

What is measles, and how dangerous is it?

Measles, also known as rubeola, is a respiratory infection that, while highly contagious, is easily prevented by vaccination. The virus spreads when an infected person sneezes, coughs or talks and releases infectious droplets into the air, which someone else then inhales. These droplets can remain airborne and contagious for up to two hours. Droplets falling on a surface or other object can spread the virus for up to several hours, if someone touches the surface or object and then touches his or her nose, mouth or eyes.

After transmission, it typically takes seven to 14 days for measles symptoms to show up. Initial signs and symptoms include fever; dry cough; runny nose; sore throat; and red, watery eyes. After two to three days of these flu-like symptoms, tiny white spots may appear on the inside of the mouth, and several days later a rash of small red bumps or spots typically breaks out on the body.

Complications arising from measles include bronchitis, laryngitis, pneumonia, ear infection, hearing loss and brain damage. Pregnant women who contract measles may have a miscarriage or early delivery, or their baby may have a low birth weight. In some cases, particularly in infants and small children, measles can cause death.

There is no specific treatment for measles. Supportive care includes rest and fluids. If a bacterial infection such as bacterial pneumonia or an ear infection develops while someone has measles, antibiotics can be used to treat the secondary infection.

Immunity to measles comes from vaccination or from having had measles in the past. Infants in the first year of life who have not yet been vaccinated are at the highest risk of measles and its complications. The measles vaccine (the MMR, or measles-mumps-rubella shot) is an extremely safe, routine pediatric vaccination given after a child’s first birthday. Adults who have not been vaccinated, and those who are unsure of their vaccination status, should speak with their healthcare provider.

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