Measles is caused by a virus that lives in the nose and throat mucus of an infected person and spreads easily through breathing, coughing, and sneezing. When someone with measles coughs, sneezes, or talks, infected droplets spray into the air (where other people can inhale them) or land on a surface, where they remain active and contagious for several hours. If others breathe the contaminated air or touch the infected surface, then touch their eyes, noses, or mouths, they can become infected. Measles is so contagious that if one person has it, up to 90% of the people close to that person who are not immune will also become infected. Infected people can spread measles to others from four days before through four days after the rash appears.
- About 1 in 5 people in the US who get measles will be hospitalized
- 1 out of every 1,000 people with measles will develop brain swelling, which could lead to brain damage
- As many as 1 in 20 children with measles gets pneumonia
- 1 to 3 out of 1,000 people with measles will die, even with the best care
According to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC), more than 1,200 individual cases of measles were confirmed in 2019 in 31 states—the largest number of cases since measles was eliminated in the US in 2000.
Symptoms include rash, cough, runny nose, eye irritation, and fever. Children with measles often feel miserable and may miss school, with loss of appetite, diarrhea, and sensitivity to any light.
The rash usually appears about 14 days after a person is exposed. The rash spreads from the head to the trunk to the lower extremities. Patients who have compromised immune systems do not always develop the rash.
The measles, mumps, rubella (MMR) vaccine is a safe and effective way to protect you and your family from measles.
In the US, two doses of the MMR vaccine are recommended for children. Infants normally get their first measles vaccine between 12 and 15 months followed by another shot between 4 and 6 years. However, CDC recommends that any baby as young as 6 months old who will be travelling internationally should get a vaccine before leaving the US, followed by two additional doses later.
Adolescents who were not previously vaccinated should get two doses (with at least 28 days between doses); those who only received one dose previously should get the second dose.
All adults born in 1957 or later who have not been vaccinated or have not had measles should be vaccinated. CDC states that if you are not sure about your vaccination status, it is safe to get another measles vaccine.
The only people who should not get measles vaccine are those who are immunocompromised or pregnant. Talk to a healthcare professional to find out if you should receive a vaccination.
There is no specific antiviral drug available to treat measles. The goal of medical care is to relieve symptoms and address complications such as bacterial infections. Severe measles cases among children, including those who are hospitalized, may be treated with vitamin A.
Download 3 Things Parents Need to Know about Measles and Vitamin A infographic.
Reviewed April 2020
This sharable infographic explains the risks of measles, how it is spread, and how to protect yourself and your family