An Overview of Measles

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Measles is a type of paramyxovirus that's highly contagious, causing symptoms like red eyes, fever, sore throat, and a cough, followed by a rash that starts on the face several days later. Health experts hope to one day eradicate measles just as smallpox has been wiped out, but unfortunately, measles is still a big concern worldwide. In fact, the virus that causes measles is one of the leading causes of vaccine-preventable death in children under age five worldwide and outbreaks still occur—even in the United States.

Symptoms

Because measles is relatively uncommon in the United States, people, including doctors, aren't always quick to recognize the signs and symptoms. Signs and symptoms of measles usually begin about 10 to 12 days after exposure to someone who is infected, though this incubation period can range from seven to 21 days, and include:

  • Fever
  • Irritability
  • Sneezing, runny nose, and congestion
  • Cough
  • Sore throat
  • Red eyes
  • Koplik's spots (small bright red spots with a white center, which are found on the inside of your mouth/cheeks)
  • Swollen glands
  • Rash, which starts several days after the above symptoms

People do still die from measles and its complications, though the numbers have, of course, been drastically reduced since the invention of the vaccine, especially in the United States. Since 2000, there have been zero to two deaths from measles in the country per year. That said, there have been measles deaths anywhere there has been a measles outbreak, including in industrialized countries such as the United Kingdom, Japan, Canada, France, and the Netherlands. In 2016, nearly 246 people died per day from measles worldwide.

Causes

Measles is caused by an extremely contagious virus that lives in the throat and nose. If you're infected, other people can get sick when you cough, sneeze, or even talk because you're spraying tiny, infected droplets that can live for up to two hours both in the air or on a surface. The virus enters your mucous membranes and respiratory tract, spreading to the lymph nodes, bloodstream, and organs like the kidneys, liver, and skin. 

Not being vaccinated against measles (either fully or at all) puts you at great risk with exposure.

Diagnosis

Doctors can typically diagnose measles by the rash and the Koplik's spots in your mouth, but yours will probably want to do a blood and/or urine test to confirm that it is, indeed, measles.

Treatment

Unfortunately, there is no cure for measles. Besides vitamin A for people with low levels, measles immunizations that are given several days after exposure to people who haven't been vaccinated, and antibiotics for any bacterial infections that occur at the same time, there aren't any real measles treatments either.

Instead, treatments for measles focus on comfort care you use when anyone is sick with a serious illness, such as bed rest, fluids, and fever reducers, like acetaminophen and ibuprofen, until the virus has run its course.

Prevention

Measles can be easily prevented with a vaccine, which nearly everyone can get. The measles vaccine doesn't work for infants because their immune systems aren't developed enough. Babies typically receive their first measles vaccine, along with a vaccine for mumps and rubella (MMR), when they're 12 to 15 months old with a second MMR between the ages of 4 and 6 years.

Women who plan to get pregnant should have the vaccination at least a month before conceiving if they haven't had it before. You can't get the vaccine while you're pregnant, and contracting the measles during your pregnancy can be very dangerous for your baby.

If you've been exposed to measles and haven't been vaccinated, you can get a vaccination within the first 72 hours of exposure. This may or may not stop you from getting measles, but even if you do, it will likely be less severe and not last as long.

A Word From Verywell

Measles, also known as rubeola, has been eliminated from the United States since 2000, meaning that there has been a period of no continuous disease transmission for 12 months or more in this country. However, since measles is still so common in the rest of the world, and there still are regular measles outbreaks in the United States, it's important to think about measles, especially if you or your child hasn't had a measles vaccine, has traveled outside the United States, or has been exposed to someone who has the infection.

Getting your MMR vaccine is safe and effective in preventing measles, a disease that can cause serious complications and even death.

The Symptoms and Causes of Measles
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