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What does measles look like?

What does measles look like?

Navin Khosla NowPatientGreen tick
Created on 18 Jul 2024
Updated on 18 Jul 2024

Measles is a highly contagious viral disease caused by the measles virus, also known as morbillivirus. It primarily spreads through respiratory droplets when an infected person coughs, sneezes, or talks. Measles can affect people of all ages who have not been vaccinated or previously infected with the virus.

Before the availability of the measles vaccine, measles was a common childhood illness. However, widespread vaccination efforts have significantly reduced the number of cases of measles. Despite this, measles outbreaks can still occur in communities with low vaccination rates or when individuals travel to regions where measles is more prevalent.

Understanding Measles symptoms

Symptoms of measles typically appear 8 to 12 days after exposure to the virus, although it can take up to 21 days for symptoms to develop fully. The first symptoms resemble those of common cold-like symptoms and may include:

  • High fever
  • Fatigue
  • Cough
  • Red eyes
  • Conjunctivitis
  • Watery eyes
  • Runny nose

A few days after the onset of these symptoms, a distinct rash appears on the face and gradually spreads to the rest of the body. The measles rash is characterized by red, flat spots that may merge to form larger patches. It is important to note that the skin rash is not usually itchy.

Additional symptoms that may accompany measles include a sore throat, white spots in the mouth, muscle pain, and sensitivity to light. It is crucial to be aware of these symptoms, especially if you suspect exposure to the measles virus.

Recognizing the Measles rash

The measles rash is a hallmark characteristic of the infection. It typically begins on the face and behind the ears before spreading downward to the neck, trunk, arms, legs, and feet. The rash usually lasts for approximately 7 to 10 days.

The appearance of the measles rash can vary, but it generally starts as flat red spots on the skin. Over time, the spots may become raised and form a blotchy pattern. In some cases, small white spots may appear on top of the red rash. The rash can be more challenging to identify on darker skin tones.

Diagnosis and testing

If you or your healthcare provider suspect measles based on the symptoms and rash, further diagnostic tests may be necessary to confirm the diagnosis. Measles can be diagnosed through a combination of clinical evaluation, medical history, and laboratory tests.

During a physical examination, your healthcare provider will evaluate your symptoms, examine the rash, and inquire about recent travel or exposure to individuals with measles. This information helps in determining the likelihood of a measles infection.

Laboratory tests can aid in confirming the diagnosis. A blood test to detect the presence of measles-specific antibodies or a throat swab to identify the virus may be conducted. These tests can help differentiate measles from other similar viral infections. It is crucial to consult a healthcare professional promptly if you suspect measles to receive an accurate diagnosis and appropriate care.

Management and treatment

Unfortunately, there is no specific antiviral treatment for measles. Most individuals with measles recover with time and supportive care. The focus of management is on alleviating symptoms, preventing complications, and ensuring adequate rest and hydration.

Here are some measures that can help manage measles symptoms:

  • Rest and drink plenty of fluids to prevent dehydration
  • Over-the-counter pain relievers such as acetaminophen (paracetamol) or ibuprofen may help reduce fever and alleviate discomfort. However, aspirin should not be given to children under 16 years of age due to the risk of a rare but serious condition called Reye’s syndrome
  • Use a humidifier or take warm showers to relieve respiratory symptoms and soothe cough
  • Gently clean the eyes with a warm, damp cloth to relieve any discomfort caused by redness or discharge
  • Maintain good respiratory hygiene by covering your mouth and nose with a tissue or your elbow when coughing or sneezing. Dispose of used tissues properly

It is essential to consult a healthcare professional for guidance on managing symptoms and to monitor for any potential complications.

Complications of Measles

Measles can lead to various complications, especially in individuals with weakened immune systems or those who are not vaccinated. Some common complications include pneumonia, ear infections, encephalitis (inflammation of the brain), and even death. Infants, young children, pregnant individuals, and adults over the age of 20 are at higher risk of experiencing serious complications. Prompt medical attention and supportive care are crucial in managing these complications and minimizing their impact.

Pregnant individuals who contract measles are at risk of complications both for themselves and their unborn babies. Measles during pregnancy can increase the risk of premature labor, low birth weight, and miscarriage. It is important for pregnant individuals to ensure their immunity to measles before conception and to avoid close contact with individuals who may have the infection. Vaccination before pregnancy is the best way to protect against measles.

Preventing Measles: Importance of vaccination

Vaccination is the most effective way to prevent measles. The measles vaccine is typically administered as part of the measles-mumps-rubella (MMR) vaccine, which protects against all three viral infections.

The MMR vaccine is recommended for children at 12-15 months of age, with a second dose usually given between 4-6 years. Vaccination not only protects individuals from measles but also contributes to the overall community immunity, preventing the spread of the disease.

In addition to routine childhood vaccination, certain groups of individuals who may have missed or require additional doses should consider vaccination. These groups include healthcare workers, college students, international travelers, and those living in communities with outbreaks.

It is important to consult with a healthcare provider to ensure you and your family are up to date with the recommended measles vaccination schedule.

Outlook and prognosis

The prognosis for most individuals with measles is generally good. In uncomplicated cases, symptoms usually resolve within one to two weeks, and individuals make a full recovery. However, it is crucial to be aware of potential complications that can arise from measles.

Certain groups, such as infants, pregnant individuals, adults over the age of 20, and those with weakened immune systems, are at higher risk of experiencing severe complications. These complications may include pneumonia, ear infections, encephalitis (inflammation of the brain), and, rarely, long-term neurological issues.

Early detection, prompt medical attention, and appropriate supportive care can significantly reduce the risk of complications and aid in a faster recovery.

Living with Measles: Care and support

Living with measles requires proper care and support to manage symptoms, prevent complications, and avoid spreading the virus to others. Here are some important considerations:

  • Stay home and avoid public places to minimize the risk of infecting others
  • Follow hygiene practices such as frequent handwashing with soap and water
  • Cover your mouth and nose with a tissue or your elbow when coughing or sneezing
  • Dispose of used tissues properly and maintain a clean environment
  • Avoid close contact with individuals who are more susceptible to severe complications, such as infants, pregnant individuals, and those with weakened immune systems

It is essential to seek medical advice and follow the guidance of healthcare professionals to ensure proper care and prevent the spread of measles.

Additional resources and references

Please note that this article provides general information and should not substitute professional medical advice. If you suspect you or someone you know has measles, consult a healthcare professional for an accurate diagnosis and appropriate care.


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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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