You’ve probably heard that more kids are getting measles. But measles is still rare in the United States. That’s because most kids get the vaccine to prevent it.
Vaccines do more than just protect people from getting sick — they also stop diseases from spreading. When lots of people are vaccinated against measles, fewer people catch it. And when there aren’t as many people with measles, it can slow how the disease spreads or even stop it in its tracks. Doctors call this “herd immunity.”
Measles isn’t very common, but it is very contagious. The virus can spread quickly among people who didn’t get vaccinated.
Measles isn’t just a kid disease — teens (and adults) get it too. Here’s what you need to know about measles.
Measles is best known for the full-body skin rash it causes, but it’s not just a skin problem. Measles is actually an infection of the respiratory system. People who catch it will first get a cough, runny nose, and fever — kind of like having the flu. The rash usually doesn’t show up until a few days later.
One of the (many) crummy things about measles is there’s no specific medicine to treat it. People who get measles just have to rest and wait until they feel better. That can take a couple of weeks.
The long healing time can affect your school and social life if you get measles: Because measles is so contagious, someone who has it needs to stay at home until a doctor says it’s OK to be around other people again. For some people, that can be a couple of weeks.
Signs of Measles
Measles usually starts with a hacking cough, runny nose, red eyes, and a high fever. Some people also have red and white spots in the mouth.
The measles rash breaks out 3-5 days after coughing or other respiratory problems start. People often have high fevers up to 104ºF (40ºC) around that time as well.
The red or reddish-brown rash usually starts as flat spots on a person’s forehead. It spreads to the rest of the face, then down the neck and torso to the arms, legs, and feet.
After a few days, the fever and rash begin to go away.
When Should I Call a Doctor?
Here’s how to get medical help for measles:
- Call a doctor if you think you might have measles. Set up an appointment so the doctor can diagnose you properly.
- Call a doctor if you’ve been around someone who might have measles — even if you don’t feel sick.
- Call a doctor right away if you haven’t had the measles vaccine and you’ve been around someone who might have measles. This is even more important if you have an illness that affects your immune system or you take medicines that suppress your immune system.
- See a doctor right away if you have trouble breathing.
Getting measles can cause problems for pregnant women. These problems might be serious, and the mom or baby can even die. Pregnant women need to call a doctor right away if they’ve been around someone who might have measles.
If you haven’t had the measles vaccine and you come into contact with someone who has measles, you’ll need to be quarantined. That means you’ll have to stay home and not see other people for 21 days, even if you show no signs of the disease.
How Do People Catch It?
Measles is so contagious that you can catch it just by being near someone who has it.
When people with measles sneeze or cough, droplets get sprayed into the air. These droplets can carry the measles virus. Other people who breathe in the droplets can get infected.
The measles virus can live on surfaces for 2 hours. That means people can get infected just by touching objects with the virus on them, then touching their eyes or mouth.
It might take 8 to 10 days before someone who is infected starts to feel ill.
People with measles are contagious (can spread the disease) from 4 days before the rash shows up until about 4 days after the rash appears. People with measles are most contagious while they have a fever, runny nose, and cough. People with weakened immune systems might be contagious until they completely recover from measles.
If you catch measles, you’ll probably feel ill for about 2 weeks. Since there’s no medicine to make measles go away or shorten how long you have it, you’ll just have to wait for it to heal on its own.
These things can help you feel better:
- Stay home and rest. Avoid other people for 4 days after your rash first appears. People with weakened immune systems who get measles (like people with cancer or HIV) should avoid being around other people until all their symptoms are gone.
- Drink lots of fluids (like water).
- Ask your doctor what medicines to take if you have a fever. Don’t take aspirin. Taking aspirin for any illness that’s caused by a virus can lead to a serious medical problem called Reye syndrome. Doctors often suggest ibuprofen or acetaminophen as a way to bring down a fever.
The best way to protect yourself against measles is to get the measles vaccine. Most kids get the vaccine when they’re about 1 year old and again sometime between the ages of 4 and 6.
Older kids, teens, and adults can still get the vaccine if they haven’t had it yet. A few people shouldn’t get the vaccine because it’s made with a small amount of live measles virus. That small amount of virus could be enough to make someone with immune system problems sick, so check with your doctor.
If you want to get the vaccine and there’s a chance you might be pregnant, let your doctor know before he or she gives you the shot. There’s a small chance that the live measles virus in the vaccine could cause pregnancy problems.
Because some people aren’t able to get the measles vaccine, it’s even more important for anyone who can get the shot to do so. That way, people who can’t get the vaccine get some protection through herd immunity.
During a measles outbreak, some people who haven’t been vaccinated can get a special injection that can help prevent the disease or make the symptoms less bad.
Reviewed by: Rupal Christine Gupta, MD
Date reviewed: February 2015