Medically Reviewed by Stephanie S. Gardner, MD on April 26, 2022
8 min read

Measles is an infection you get from a virus. The measles virus lives in the mucus of the nose and throat. It’s spread through the air and by coming into direct contact with someone who has it. The virus can stay active on surfaces and in the air for up to 2 hours.

It’s very contagious. If you haven’t been vaccinated and are in a room with someone who has measles, you have a 90% chance of getting it.

Part of what makes measles so dangerous is that you can be contagious 4 days before you get the telltale rash. So you could easily spread the virus without knowing you have it. You’ll continue to be contagious 4 days after the rash goes away.

Measles usually happens in stages over a period of about 2-3 weeks. For the first 10-14 days after you come into contact with the virus, you won’t have any signs. This is the incubation period.

A high fever is normally the first sign of infection after the incubation period is over. The fever will last 4 to 7 days. During that time, you might have the following symptoms:

After these symptoms, a red bumpy rash shows up. It usually starts at the hairline and spreads to the neck, torso, limbs, feet, and hands. As it spreads, your fever may spike as high as 105 F or higher. Finally, the rash starts to fade from the top of your body downward, starting with your face.

You’re contagious to other people for 8 days: the 4 days before and after your rash shows up.

Measles spreads quickly and easily. You can get it from being close to someone who has it. It travels through coughs and sneezes. You’ll also get it if you come in contact with any other nose or mouth fluids from someone who has it.

The virus can stay on surfaces for up to 2 hours. You can pick it up by touching the surface and then rubbing your nose or eyes or touching your mouth.

Your risk of getting measles goes up if you:

  • Aren’t vaccinated, especially if you’re young or pregnant

  • Have traveled outside the country

  • Live in an area where many people are unvaccinated

  • Are low in vitamin A

  • Have an immunodeficiency due to another condition or medical treatment

To figure out whether you have measles, your doctor will first look closely at your rash. They’ll also look for the small white Koplik spots inside your mouth. Sometimes, to confirm it, they can also do a blood test.

If you do get the measles virus, medicine won’t cure it (most drugs don’t kill viruses). The best way to speed up your recovery and prevent complications is to drink plenty of fluids and get lots of rest.

There’s no specific treatment for measles, but there are things you can do if you think you’ve come into contact with it.

  • Post-exposure vaccination. If you’ve never had a measles vaccination, you can get one up to 72 hours after being around the virus. The vaccine can lower your chances of getting it and can make your symptoms milder if you do.

  • Immune serum globulin. This protein injection can boost your immune system if you’re pregnant, very young, or have a condition that makes it weak. You have to get it within 6 days of exposure to the virus. The injection may either prevent measles or keep your measles symptoms from being severe. 

If your measles causes a bacterial infection, such as an ear infection or pneumonia, your doctor may prescribe an antibiotic to help treat it.

At home, you can help ease your measles symptoms with:

  • Fever-reducing NSAIDs such as acetaminophen, ibuprofen, or naproxen. Don’t give children aspirin

  • Vitamin A. Kids with low levels of vitamin A are at higher risk of measles. Boosting it can make measles symptoms less severe.

  • Rest

  • Plenty of fluids to hydrate yourself after fever and sweats

  • A humidifier for easier breathing

  • Dim lights or sunglasses to relieve eye pain caused by bright lights

In the U.S., about 1 in 4 people who get measles end up in the hospital. Children under age 5 and adults over age 20 tend to have the worst problems. These may include:

  • Ear infections. This is a very common complication caused by bacteria. Sometimes these ear infections cause permanent hearing loss.

  • Bronchitis, laryngitis, or croup. Often, the measles virus causes inflammation in your voice box or bronchial tubes, the air passageways to your lungs.

  • Diarrhea. Less than 1 out of every 10 people with measles gets diarrhea.

  • Pneumonia. You can get a severe infection of your lungs.

  • Encephalitis, a brain infection that can cause deafness and brain damage. About 1 in 1,000 people with measles gets it. You might get it right away or months after your infection.

  • Pregnancy problems such as low birth weight, premature birth, or even death of the mother

Subacute sclerosing panencephalitis (SSPE) is a very rare complication some people get 7-10 years after having measles. SSPE affects your central nervous system and is fatal.

If you get measles, you’ll be sick for a couple of weeks. Fortunately, it’s preventable.

Immunizations are by far the best way to prevent the spread of measles. Thanks to the measles-mumps-rubella (MMR) vaccine, the virus has been mostly wiped out in the United States. That doesn't mean no one gets measles anymore; it’s just not constantly around. If you live in the U.S. and do get it, it's usually because someone brought it in from another country.

The MMR vaccine is 97% effective after two doses. Doctors recommend that children get the first dose when they're between 12 and 15 months old, and the second between 4 and 6 years old.

The vaccine is safe for most people.  But pregnant women, people with weakened immune systems (from diseases like leukemia and tuberculosis), and those with certain allergies can’t get the vaccine. As a result, the odds are higher that they’ll get the virus if they are exposed to it.

Side effects from the MMR shot aren’t common, but you may have:

  • A sore, red, or swollen spot where you got the shot

  • Fever

  • Mild rash

  • Temporary pain or stiffness in your joints

Very rarely, the MMR shot can cause a high fever or seizures. 

The MMR vaccine doesn't cause autism. Researchers have done many studies on the MMR shot and autism. None of them show any link between the two.  

Some people should not get the MMR vaccine. You may need to skip it if you have:

  • Allergies to any of the ingredients

  • A condition that weakens your immune system

  • A family history of immune system problems

  • A condition that makes you bruise or bleed easily

  • Tuberculosis

  • Had another vaccine in the past 4 weeks

  • Any kind of illness that’s making you feel run down

You may need to delay your MMR vaccine if you’re pregnant, think you might be pregnant, or have recently had a blood transfusion.

If you can’t get a MMR shot, it’s important to take safety measures to ward off infection. Make sure you:

  • Wash your hands well and often with soap.

  • Bandage any cuts or broken skin.

  • Keep your hands away from your face.

  • Don’t share utensils, napkins, or tissues with other people.