Last Updated: October 25, 2017
Measles, also known as rubeola, is a serious childhood disease that is caused by a highly contagious virus. The common symptoms of measles include a high fever, cough, runny nose, red watery eyes and a signature red body rash. There is no cure for measles and most people successfully clear the disease over the course of a few weeks. Children younger than age 5 and adults older than age 20 are at increased risk of developing serious measles-associated complications, including pneumonia and encephalitis (swelling of the brain).
Prior to 1963 when the measles vaccine was developed, measles affected most children before they reached the age of 15. At the time, there were a total of 3-4 million infections per year in the United States, resulting in up to 500 deaths annually. Following widespread vaccination in the 1980s, the rate of new measles infections dropped by 80%, followed by an additional decline once the two-dose recommendation for the vaccine was implemented in 1989. Currently, there are an average of 60 reported measles infections in the United States each year. Despite the fact that the majority of children worldwide are now receiving the measles vaccine, the disease continues to be a leading cause of death in small children. In 2013, there were a reported 145,700 global deaths due to measles, the majority of which were in developing countries.
The measles virus is present in the nose and throat of an infected person. It spreads through sneezing, coughing, talking and other activities that cause infected droplets from these cavities to become airborne. A person becomes infected by directly inhaling the infected droplets, which remain infectious for several hours. Alternatively, the hands can pick up the live virus from an infected surface and transmit them via contact with the eyes, nose and mouth. The measles virus is extremely contagious; 90% of those who come in close proximity to an infected person are expected to become infected. A person with measles can transmit the virus starting at four days before the rash develops, until four days after the rash has begun.
Unvaccinated children under the age of 5 are at highest risk for measles and its potentially fatal complications. The known risk factors for measles are:
The symptoms of measles appear after a 10-14 day incubation period, during which time no symptoms are present. The initial stage of measles begins with a high fever that can last up to a week, followed by cough, runny nose, red/watery eyes and white spots inside the mouth. After 3-5 days, the second stage begins with a red rash that starts on the face and neck and spreads over the rest of the body. The rash looks like small raised red bumps and generally lasts about a week before gradually fading. The full list of symptoms includes:
Measles is diagnosed by its signature rash, as well as the white spots inside the mouth. If needed, laboratory test are also available to identify the measles virus. There is no cure or specific treatment for measles. However, there are ways to manage the risks of developing serious complications.
The recommended course of the measles vaccine is the best line of defense against the disease. The vaccine, which is called the MMR vaccine, combines three diseases (measles, mumps, and rubella) and is administered in two doses during childhood. Anyone who develops measles must remain in isolation in order the prevent transmission to high-risk populations, such as infants, pregnant women and those with weakened immunity.