What are measles?

What are measles?

13 Jan 2023
Stefano Mirabello Medical Reviewer
Pharmacist / B.Pharm

Measles is a highly contagious viral infection that can be spread very easily. It is therefore useful to understand what it is and how to respond if you think you may have been infected. The most characteristic measles symptom is a blotchy red rash, but this surprisingly is not usually the first symptom. In this blog post, we’ll look at what exactly measles are and its signs and symptoms, so that you will know how to identify it, should it present itself.

Measles is an infectious disease caused by the measles virus Rubeola, it belongs to the Paramyxoviridae family. It can spread very quickly and is highly contagious, even before a person is aware of the presence of the virus. This means that even if you don’t think someone has measles, they may still be able to spread it. Symptoms of measles can appear anywhere from 7-14 days after a person has been exposed.

How is measles spread?

Measles is an extremely infectious virus that spreads easily through the air. It is spread primarily when an infected person coughs or sneezes, causing the virus to spray into the air and land in a person’s nose or mouth. It is also possible for someone to catch measles by coming into direct contact with an infected person’s saliva or mucus, such as when they share the same utensils. Unfortunately, those who are infected can spread measles even before they begin to show symptoms of the disease, which means it can be difficult to identify who has been infected and prevent its spread. The best way to protect yourself from being exposed to measles is to get vaccinated, particularly if you are in a high-risk group, such as pregnant women, health care workers and young children.

Symptoms of measles

First symptoms

Measles symptoms appear seven to fourteen days after contact with the virus. Common first symptoms of measles are high fever, coughing, sore throat, runny nose, red eyes, watery eyes (conjunctivitis), headache, fatigue and diarrhoea. These symptoms normally occur before the eruption of the rash.

Three to five days later, after the fever and other first symptoms develop, the classic measles rash appears. The rash caused by measles is distinct in appearance, it can be a helpful indicator that someone may have measles.


The rash starts at the hairline, appearing typically as small red spots or bumps that spread downward. The marks will become more clustered after a day or two, while still spreading down the body, sometimes to the arms and legs. These spots can become slightly raised as if they are made of small bumps touching each other. You may also see white spots (koplik spots) in the centre of some of these marks. As the disease progresses, the measles rash becomes more widespread over the body, lasting for several days until it fades away.

It’s important to be aware of all the signs and symptoms related to measles, as early detection is key in preventing complications from happening and promoting timely medical intervention if needed.

Complications of measles

A measles infection can cause significant physical and emotional distress, if left untreated. Serious complications can include:

  • Ear infections
  • Encephalitis
  • Bronchitis
  • Pneumonia
  • Inflammation of the brain

It’s important to note that young children, pregnant women and those with weakened immune systems are at an even higher risk for complications from a measles infection.

Measles and pregnancy

Pregnant women are particularly vulnerable to contracting measles, as their immune systems may be weakened. Unfortunately, measles can have serious consequences for pregnant women and their unborn babies. A pregnant woman with measles may experience complications such as premature birth, blindness, deafness or even low birth weight in the baby.

It is therefore important that all pregnant women take precautionary measures to prevent infection with measles, such as getting vaccinated against it before pregnancy. Additionally, pregnant women should consult with their doctor when they suspect a case of measles or upon contact with an infected individual. Early diagnosis and treatment can significantly reduce these risks and help ensure the best possible outcome for both mother and baby.

Measles in young children

Measles can be a dangerous disease for young children, especially if it isn’t caught early. Complications from measles can range from irritation of the eyes and ears to more serious complications such as pneumonia or encephalitis. In rare cases, complications have even been known to be fatal. Therefore, it is highly encouraged that children receive their vaccinations in order to prevent measles and its complications. Early identification of measles is key in protecting your child’s health, so if you suspect your child may have been exposed to measles contact your doctor right away.

Measles in people with weakened immune systems

Measles can be particularly dangerous for those with weakened immune systems. Generally, complications that arise from contracting the disease are worse when people have a decreased ability to fight infection. Some complications associated with measles in those with weakened immune systems include bacterial infections and complications of the brain, lungs and heart. Severe cases can even cause death. Therefore, if you have an underlying medical condition that compromises your immunity, take extra precautions against sickness and be sure to consult with your doctor about possibly receiving a higher level of protection against the virus.

If you fall into these categories, talk to your doctor or other healthcare professionals about the protection that vaccinations may offer. Fortunately, these life-threatening complications are rare, if proper medical care is sought early on.


Measles infection is typically treated with various home remedies and supportive care, such as rest and fluids. Generally, supportive care includes rest, plenty of sleep, fluids and over-the-counter drugs such as ibuprofen or paracetamol, to reduce fever. These treatments focus on improving comfort, while allowing the body’s natural defence systems to fight off the virus. In some cases, depending on the severity of the illness, antibiotics or vitamin A supplements may be prescribed.

Additionally, it is important for parents and caregivers to monitor any measles rash outbreaks for worsening symptoms that may require medical attention. Early intervention by a doctor can significantly reduce the spread of measles and reduce potential complications, so seeing your healthcare provider at the first sign of infection is key.

How to avoid spreading or catching measles

Measles is a highly contagious virus, so the best way to avoid both catching and spreading it is through vaccination. The NHS recommends the MMR (measles-mumps-rubella) vaccination to everyone in order to protect against contagious viruses. It is a safe and effective vaccine that should be received by all individuals. The NHS typically provides the first dose of the MMR vaccine around 12 months of age, then a second dose when they are between 3 and 5 years of age or before starting school.

Receiving both of these doses protects you from measles as well as mumps and rubella. If you have any questions about receiving the MMR, contact your NHS doctor for help. This can not only help prevent you from getting ill but also helps protect those who are unable to get vaccinated due to age or health conditions.

Additionally, practising good hygiene can help minimise your risk of catching this virus, by avoiding contact with infected individuals and frequently washing your hands with soap and warm water.

Can you get measles twice?

It’s a common question. The answer is yes, but it is uncommon. Many people are immune to the measles virus after having it once, so the chance of getting sick for a second time is relatively low. It is one of the few illnesses that can be contracted more than once. This is because, unlike other diseases such as chicken pox, the measles virus doesn’t stay in the body once it has been exposed and contracted. Now people who have had measles before are immunised against it and unlikely to catch it again; however, a person could contract measles a second time if they become exposed to a large enough dose of the virus after their immunity wears off.

Even if some people can get measles twice, being given a proper vaccination should be enough to protect them from getting infected with this virus again. Getting vaccinated is the best way to prevent not only getting measles once, but also contracting it more than once in your lifetime.

Top 4 Things you Need to Know about Measles

Understanding the basics of measles is key to prevention and control. Here are the top 4 things you need to know about measles:

  1. People who have had two doses of the measles, mumps, rubella (MMR) vaccine are considered extremely unlikely to get measles
  2. It can spread through the air when an infected person coughs or sneezes
  3. People who have not been vaccinated or may have only had one dose of the MMR vaccine may be at risk of getting infected if they are exposed to someone who has measles
  4. Warning signs include high fever, red eyes, running nose and a distinctive rash that appears several days after exposure

Keeping these four facts about measles in mind can empower you to take proactive steps for protection.

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