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Measles (Rubeola)

What is measles?

Measles, also called 10-day measles, red measles, or measles, is a viral illness respiratory disease. It causes a red, blotchy rash or skin eruption. Measles has a distinct rash that helps aid in the diagnosis.

Measles is spread from one child to another through direct contact with discharge from the nose and throat. It is also spread through coughing and sneezing (airborne droplets) from an infected child because the virus lives in the mucus in the nose and throat. This is a very contagious disease that usually consists of a fever, and cough, followed by a generalized rash. 

What causes the measles?

Measles is caused by a virus. It is mostly seen in the winter and spring. Measles is preventable by proper immunization with the measles vaccine.

What are the symptoms of the measles?

It may take between 7 to 14 days for a child to develop symptoms of measles after being exposed to the disease. It is important to know that a child is contagious about 4 days before the rash breaks out and 4 days after the rash develops. Therefore, children may pass the disease to others before they even know they have it.

During the early phase of the disease (which lasts between 1 and 4 days), symptoms usually look like those of an upper respiratory infection. These are the most common symptoms of measles:

  • Runny nose

  • Hacking cough

  • Conjunctivitis (pink eye) 

  • Fever

  • Small spots with white centers (Koplik's spots) appear on the inside of the cheek (usually occur 2 or 3 days after symptoms start)

  • Rash. Deep, red, flat rash that starts on the face and spreads down to the trunk, arms, legs and feet. The rash starts as small distinct lesions, which then combines as one big rash. After 3 to 7 days, the rash will start to clear leaving a brownish discoloration and peeling skin.

  • Severe diarrhea 

The most serious complications from measles include:

  • Ear infections

  • Pneumonia

  • Croup

  • Encephalitis (inflammation of the brain)

  • Blindness

The symptoms of measles may look like other skin conditions or medical problems. Always see your child's healthcare provider for a diagnosis.

How is measles diagnosed?

Measles is usually diagnosed based on a complete medical history and physical exam of your child. The unique measles rash usually allows for a diagnosis simply on physical exam. In addition, your child's healthcare provider may order blood or urine tests to confirm the diagnosis.

What is the treatment for measles?

The goal of treatment for measles is to help decrease the severity of the symptoms. Since it is a viral infection, antibiotics won't work. Treatment may include:

  • Increased fluid intake

  • Acetaminophen for fever (Do not give aspirin.)

  • Vitamin A. Two doses are recommended for all children in developing countries who get measles, to help prevent eye damage and blindness, and decrease the number of deaths from the disease. Always see your child's healthcare provider for advice.

If your child was exposed and has not been immunized, your child's healthcare provider may give the MMR vaccine to the child within 72 hours or immune globin (IG) within 6 days of measles exposure to help prevent the disease.

How is measles prevented?

Since the use of the measles (or rubeola) vaccine, the incidence of measles has decreased substantially. A small percentage of measles are due to vaccine failure. The measles vaccine is usually given in combination with the mumps and rubella vaccine. It is called the MMR. It is usually given when the child is age 12 to 15 months and then again between age 4 and 6. During an outbreak, another booster shot may be recommended by your child's healthcare provider. Other ways to prevent the spread of measles include:

  • Keeping children home from school or day care for 4 days after the rash appears. Always contact your child's healthcare provider for advice.

  • Make sure all of your child's contacts have been properly immunized.

Online Medical Reviewer: Freeborn, Donna, PhD, CNM, FNP
Online Medical Reviewer: Lentnek, Arnold, MD
Date Last Reviewed: 10/1/2016
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