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Alternative Names
red measles, rubeola, morbilli

Measles is a viral infection of the respiratory tract and the skin. It is one of the most contagious diseases known. Measles was once very common, but a vaccine has made it much more rare.

What is going on in the body?
Measles is spread by direct contact with a person who has measles. It is spread by contaminated droplets that are breathed or coughed into the air from the contagious person.

What are the signs and symptoms of the disease?
The symptoms of measles include:
  • fever
  • fatigue
  • loss of appetite
  • sneezing and runny nose
  • hacking cough
  • red eyes and sensitivity to light
  • tiny white spots in the mouth and throat, called Koplik's spots
  • reddish rash on the forehead and ears that spreads to the body
What are the causes and risks of the disease?
Measles is caused by the rubeola virus. People who live in crowded or unsanitary conditions are more likely to get measles.

What can be done to prevent the disease?
Children should be immunized against measles with an MMR vaccine. This vaccination is a combined one for measles, mumps, and rubella. It is usually given at 1 year of age, and again at 4 to 6 years.

If a person who has not had the vaccine is exposed to measles, a shot of gamma globulin may be given. This may prevent the disease, or at least make it less severe. Gamma globulin will protect a person from measles for 3 months.

How is the disease diagnosed?
Measles is diagnosed when Koplik's spots are seen. A blood test, known as an antibody titer, can also detect the measles virus. Antibodies appear within 3 days after the rash begins.

What are the long-term effects of the disease?
Possible complications of measles are: What are the risks to others?
Measles is very contagious. If a person has not had measles, and has not had the MMR vaccine, contact with the infected person should be avoided during the contagious period. A person is contagious from day 11 to day 15 after exposure. Measles becomes apparent 8 to 14 days after exposure.

What are the treatments for the disease?
Treatment of measles involves relieving symptoms by such measures as:
  • vaporizers and a warm room to help reduce the cough
  • acetaminophen for fever or discomfort
  • plenty of oral fluids to help keep lung secretions thin
  • a dark room or sunglasses if the person is sensitive to light
The person should be isolated during the contagious period.

What are the side effects of the treatments?
Acetaminophen, as well as other medications, may cause stomach upset. Aspirin should not be given to anyone younger than 16. There is a link between the use of aspirin in children with a viral illness and Reye's syndrome. Reye's syndrome is a rare disease that involves the brain, and it has a high mortality rate.

What happens after treatment for the disease?
A person with measles should rest until the fever and the rash disappear. The individual should not go back to school or work for 7 to 10 days, or until after the fever and rash are gone.

How is the disease monitored?
It's very important to carefully isolate the person during the contagious period, so that others are not infected. It is also very important to watch for signs of secondary infection, including: These infections can cause a high fever, headache that progress to a stiff neck and back, and extreme drowsiness. Any new or worsening symptoms should be reported to the healthcare provider.

Author: Gail Hendrickson, RN, BS
Reviewer: Eileen McLaughlin, RN, BSN
Last Updated: 01/18/01
Potential conflict of interest information for reviewers available on request

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