Measles is a very contagious viral illness. It's also known as rubeola. It causes a distinct rash and a fever. Measles is spread through direct contact with droplets from coughs or sneezes from a person with measles. Although not as common, it can be spread by droplets in the air. The symptoms of measles happen about 7 to 14 days after coming in contact with a person with the virus.

What are the symptoms of measles?

Measles often starts with cold-like symptoms, such as:

  • High fever (up to 104°F (40°C) or higher

  • Runny nose

  • Inflammation and redness of the covering of the white part of the eye (conjunctivitis)

  • Cough

  • Tiny white spots inside the mouth (Koplik spots)

Within another few days, a red rash appears. It often starts on the face and then spreads to the rest of the body. Once the rash appears, the fever may get much higher. This rash fades after 4 to 7 days as symptoms go away.

The symptoms of measles may look like other health problems. Make sure your child sees their healthcare provider for a diagnosis.

How is measles treated?

Treatment will depend on your child’s symptoms, age, and general health. It will also depend on how severe the condition is.

A child who doesn't have enough vitamin A may need to take extra doses of this vitamin. Vitamin A does not treat measles by itself. But in people with vitamin A deficiency, taking vitamin A when they have measles lowers the risk for serious complications and death from the infection. Most people don't know if they are lacking in vitamin A. So your child's healthcare provider will probably give your child extra vitamin A if they have measles. Other treatment includes:

  • Medicine for fever or discomfort

  • Antibiotic medicine for complications, such as bacterial infections that may develop. Antibiotics are not effective in treating viral infections like measles.

What are possible complications of measles?

Most children get better with no lasting effects. But measles can lead to serious complications or even death. Complications of measles are:

  • Middle ear infection that may lead to hearing loss

  • Infection of the lungs (pneumonia)

  • Infection of the upper airway with trouble breathing and cough (croup)

  • Diarrhea

  • Infection of the brain (encephalitis)

How can measles be prevented?

The measles vaccine is part of the routine vaccines recommended for children. Children should be vaccinated for measles with 2 doses:

  • First dose at 12 to 15 months of age

  • Second dose at 4 to 6 years of age

For children who have not been vaccinated, getting the vaccine up to 3 days after exposure to measles may prevent the disease.

Children who have had measles are immune for life.

When should I call my healthcare provider?

Call your child's healthcare provider right away if you suspect measles. Get emergency care if your child has:

  • A fever higher than 105°F (40.5°C)

  • Trouble breathing

  • A severe headache

  • Confusion or clumsiness 

Online Medical Reviewer: Barry Zingman MD
Online Medical Reviewer: Dan Brennan MD
Online Medical Reviewer: L Renee Watson MSN RN
Date Last Reviewed: 5/1/2023
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