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Measles (Rubeola) - Topic Overview

What is measles?

Measles is a very contagious (easily spread) infection that causes a rash all over your body. It is also called rubeola or red measles.

The measles vaccine protects against the illness. This vaccine is part of the MMR (measles, mumps, and rubella) and MMRV (measles, mumps, rubella, and varicella [chickenpox]) vaccines. Most children get the vaccine as part of their regular shots. This is why measles is rare in the United States and Canada.

Did You Know?

Under the Affordable Care Act, many health insurance plans will provide free children’s preventive care services, including checkups, vaccinations and screening tests. Learn more.

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What causes measles?

Measles is caused by a virus. It is spread when an infected person coughs, sneezes, or shares food or drinks. The measles virus can travel through the air. This means that you can get measles if you are near someone who has the virus even if that person doesn't cough or sneeze directly on you.

You can spread the virus to others from 4 days before the rash starts until 4 days after the rash appeared. The virus is most often spread when people first get sick, before they know they have it.

If you have had measles, you can't get it again. Most people born before 1957 have had measles.

What are the symptoms?

The first symptoms of measles are like a bad cold—a high fever, a runny nose, sneezing, a sore throat, and a hacking cough. The lymph nodes in your neck may swell. You also may feel very tired and have diarrhea and red, sore eyes. As these symptoms start to go away, you will get red spots inside your mouth, followed by a rash camera.gif all over your body.

When adults get measles, they usually feel worse than children who get it.

It usually takes about 7 to 18 days to get symptoms after you have been around someone who has measles. This is called the incubation period.

How is measles diagnosed?

If you think you have measles, call ahead and explain your symptoms before you go to a doctor's office.

After you've had an exam, your doctor may order a blood test and/or viral culture if he or she suspects that you have measles.

How is it treated?

Measles usually gets better with home care. You can take medicine to lower your fever, if needed. Read and follow all instructions on the label. Also, get plenty of rest and drink lots of fluids. Stay away from other people as much as you can so that you don't spread the disease. Anyone who has measles should stay out of school, day care, work, and public places until at least 4 days after the rash first appeared.

Your doctor may suggest vitamin A supplements if your child has measles.

Most people get better within 2 weeks. But measles can sometimes cause dangerous problems, such as lung infection (pneumonia) or brain swelling (encephalitis). In rare cases, it can even cause seizures or meningitis.

If you have been exposed to measles and you have not had the vaccine, you may be able to prevent the infection by getting immunoglobulin (IG) or the measles vaccine as soon as possible. Babies who are younger than 12 months, pregnant women, and people who have impaired immune systems that can't fight infection may need to get IG if they are exposed to measles.

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WebMD Medical Reference from Healthwise

Last Updated: January 14, 2014
This information is not intended to replace the advice of a doctor. Healthwise disclaims any liability for the decisions you make based on this information.
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