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What causes measles?

What causes measles?

Navin Khosla NowPatientGreen tick
Created on 16 Jul 2024
Updated on 16 Jul 2024

Measles is a highly contagious viral infection that can have serious implications for those affected. Understanding the causes of measles is crucial in preventing its spread and managing the symptoms. In this comprehensive guide, we will delve into the various aspects of measles, including its transmission, symptoms, complications, and prevention methods. By gaining a deeper understanding of what causes measles, we can take the necessary steps to protect ourselves and others from this infectious disease.

The Measles Virus: How it spreads

The measles virus, scientifically known as rubeola, is primarily transmitted through respiratory droplets. When an infected person talks, coughs, or sneezes, these droplets containing the virus are released into the air. They can then be inhaled by individuals nearby, leading to infection. It’s important to note that the virus can remain airborne for up to two hours, posing a risk even after the infected person has left the area.

Another common mode of transmission is through direct contact with surfaces or objects contaminated by the virus. If an individual touches these contaminated surfaces and then touches their mouth, nose, or eyes, they can contract the virus. Measles can also be transmitted through sharing drinks or food with an infected person or through close physical contact, such as hugging or shaking hands.

Symptoms of Measles: Recognizing the early signs

Measles symptoms typically begin to manifest around eight to 12 days after exposure to the virus. The initial symptoms resemble those of a common cold and include a high fever, runny nose or blocked nose, sneezing, coughing, and red, sore, or watery eyes (conjunctivitis). These symptoms are often accompanied by a generalized feeling of tiredness.

After the cold-like symptoms, small white spots (koplik spots) may appear inside the cheeks and on the back of the lips. These spots usually last for a few days. Following this, a distinctive rash appears, starting on the face and behind the ears before spreading to other parts of the body. The measles rash may consist of raised red or brown spots that can join together to form blotchy patches. It’s important to note that the rash is typically not itchy.

Complications of Measles: Understanding the risks

While most cases of measles resolve without complications, some individuals may experience severe complications. Certain populations are at a higher risk of developing serious complications, including young children, pregnant women, adults over 20 years old, and those with weakened immune systems.

Common complications associated with measles can include diarrhea, ear infections, pneumonia, and encephalitis, which is inflammation of the brain. In rare cases, measles can lead to more serious outcomes such as blindness and seizures. Pregnant women who contract measles are at an increased risk of complications, including premature labor and low birth weight.

Prevention: The importance of vaccination

Vaccination is the most effective method of preventing measles outbreaks. The measles-mumps-rubella vaccine (MMR vaccine) provides immunity against the virus and is usually administered in two doses. The first dose is typically given to children between 12 to 15 months of age, while the second dose is administered between ages 4 to 6. It’s crucial to ensure that both doses are received for optimal protection.

Maintaining high vaccination rates within communities is essential in preventing the spread of measles. Vaccination not only protects individuals who receive the vaccine but also contributes to herd immunity, where a significant portion of the population is immune to the disease, reducing the overall risk for everyone.

Diagnosing Measles: Seeking medical evaluation

If you suspect that you or your child may have measles, it is important to seek medical evaluation for accurate diagnosis and appropriate management. Contact your healthcare provider or general practitioner and inform them of your symptoms and potential exposure to the virus. They will advise you on the necessary steps to take, which may include visiting a healthcare facility or arranging a telemedicine consultation.

Treatment and management: Easing symptoms and promoting recovery

There is no specific antiviral treatment for measles, and the virus must run its course. However, supportive care can be provided to alleviate symptoms and aid in recovery. Resting and maintaining adequate fluid intake, such as water, is essential to prevent dehydration. Over-the-counter medications like paracetamol or ibuprofen can help reduce fever and alleviate discomfort, but aspirin should not be given to children under 16 years of age due to the risk of Reye’s syndrome. Doctors may prescribe high doses of vitamin A to children who have measles, especially those at risk.

Additionally, gently removing crusts from the eyes using warm water-soaked cotton wool can help manage eye symptoms. It is crucial to avoid exposing others to the virus during this time by staying off nursery, school, or work for at least four days from the onset of the rash.

Spreading and catching Measles: Prevention measures

Measles is highly contagious, and taking precautions to prevent its spread is essential. Regularly washing hands with soap and warm water is crucial in reducing the risk of transmission. Using tissues when coughing or sneezing and discarding them properly can also help prevent the spread of the virus. Avoid close contact, and sharing cutlery, cups, towels, clothes, or bedding with infected individuals to minimize the risk of transmission.

Measles and International travel: Risks and precautions

When traveling internationally, it is important to be aware of the prevalence of measles in the destination country. Some parts of the world may have lower vaccination rates and ongoing outbreaks, increasing the risk of exposure. Before traveling, consult with a healthcare professional or travel clinic to ensure that you are up to date with your measles vaccination and discuss any additional precautions to take.

The importance of public health measures

Public health measures play a crucial role in preventing and controlling the spread of measles. These measures include promoting vaccination campaigns, enhancing surveillance systems to detect outbreaks early, and educating the public about the importance of immunization. Governments, healthcare organizations, and communities need to work together to ensure the effective implementation of these measures.

Measles outbreaks and global efforts

The World Health Organization (WHO) plays a vital role in coordinating global efforts to eliminate measles. WHO provides guidance on vaccination strategies, supports surveillance systems to track measles cases, and promotes awareness campaigns to increase vaccination rates.

Additional resources and references

For more detailed information about measles, its symptoms, prevention, and global efforts to eliminate the disease, the following resources may be helpful:

It is important to consult reputable sources and healthcare professionals for accurate and up-to-date information about measles


Measles is a highly contagious viral infection that can lead to severe complications, especially in vulnerable populations. Understanding the causes of measles, its symptoms, and prevention methods is essential in managing and controlling the spread of the virus. Vaccination remains the most effective strategy to prevent measles, and maintaining high immunization rates is crucial for the well-being of individuals and communities. By staying informed and taking necessary precautions, we can protect ourselves and others from the risks associated with measles.


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NowPatient has taken all reasonable steps to ensure that all material is factually accurate, complete, and current. However, the knowledge and experience of a qualified healthcare professional should always be sought after instead of using the information on this page. Before taking any drug, you should always speak to your doctor or another qualified healthcare provider.

The information provided here about medications is subject to change and is not meant to include all uses, precautions, warnings, directions, drug interactions, allergic reactions, or negative effects. The absence of warnings or other information for a particular medication does not imply that the medication or medication combination is appropriate for all patients or for all possible purposes.

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