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What Is Measles?

August 1, 2018

The measles virus lives in the mucus of your nose and throat. It’s spread through the air and by coming into direct contact with someone who has it. The virus can stay active on surfaces and in the air for up to 2 hours.

It’s very contagious. If you haven’t been vaccinated and are in a room with someone who has measles, you have a 90% chance of getting it.

Part of what makes measles so dangerous is that you can be contagious 4 days before you get the telltale rash. So you could easily spread the virus without knowing you have it. You’ll continue to be contagious 4 days after the rash goes away.

Measles Symptoms

A high fever is normally the first sign of measles. It usually starts 10 to 12 days after you were exposed to the virus. The fever will last 4 to 7 days. During that time, you might develop the following symptoms:

  • Runny nose          
  • Red eyes
  • Sore throat          
  • Tiny white bumps in your mouth (doctors call these Koplik spots)
  • Rash. It usually starts at the hairline and spreads to the neck, torso, limbs, feet, and hands.

If you get measles, you’ll be sick for a couple of weeks. Fortunately, it’s preventable.

The Measles Vaccine

Immunizations are by far the best way to prevent the spread of measles. Thanks to the measles-mumps-rubella (MMR) vaccine, the virus has been mostly wiped out in the United States. That doesn't mean no one gets measles anymore; it’s just not constantly around. If you live in the U.S. and do get it, it's usually because someone brought it in from another country.

The MMR vaccine is 97% effective after two doses. Doctors recommend that children get the first dose when they're between 12 and 15 months old, and the second between 4 and 6 years old.

The vaccine is safe for most people. Pregnant women, people with weakened immune systems (from diseases like leukemia and tuberculosis), and those with certain allergies can’t get the vaccine. As a result, the odds are higher that they’ll get the virus.


If you do get the measles virus, medicine won’t cure it (drugs don’t kill viruses). The best way to speed up the recovery process and prevent complications is to drink plenty of fluids and get lots of rest.

In the U.S., about 1 in 4 people who get measles end up in the hospital. Children under 5 years old and adults over 20 tend to have the worst problems. These may include:

  • Ear infections          
  • Diarrhea          
  • Pneumonia          
  • Encephalitis, which can cause deafness and brain damage

What are the first symptoms, and how quickly do they usually show up?

People usually get a fever, cough, runny nose, and red eyes first. Within a few days, a red rash starts on the face and can spread to the rest of the body. If you notice those signs, tell your doctor right away.

What are the possible complications?

Diarrhea and ear infections, which may lead to hearing loss, can happen as a result of measles.

Pneumonia and brain swelling are other potential complications. About 1 or 2 of every 1,000 children with measles dies of it, the CDC estimates.

How is measles spread, and how easily?

You can catch measles from anyone who has measles. If you're not immune, you're very likely to get it if you're around someone who has it, because the virus spreads so easily.

Just a cough or sneeze from an infected person launches the measles virus into the air, where you can breathe it in. People can spread it 4 days before they first get the measles rash, and for 4 days after the rash starts. The virus can live for up to 2 hours on a surface or in the air. You can get it if you touch an infected surface and then touch your mouth, nose, or eyes.

Measles is so contagious that 90% of people who aren't immune will get the disease if they're close to someone who has it.

How do you prevent measles?

It's simple: Get vaccinated.

You get two doses of the MMR vaccine. Children usually get the first dose when they are 12 months old, and a second before kindergarten.

On its web site, the CDC calls the vaccine "very effective" and states that "one dose is about 93% effective at preventing measles and two doses about 97% effective."

Before the vaccination program started, 3-4 million people per year in the U.S. got measles, and 400-500 of them died, the CDC estimates.

Do adults need the MMR vaccine?

If you got two doses as a child, you're covered for life. You don't need a booster shot.

If you weren't vaccinated, you may need it. "Generally, anyone 18 years of age or older who was born after 1956 should get at least one dose of MMR vaccine, unless they can show that they have either been vaccinated or had all three diseases [measles, mumps, and rubella]," the CDC's web site states.

Pregnant women shouldn't get vaccinated until after they've had their baby. People who are allergic to the vaccine's ingredients shouldn't get it, either.

Not sure? Ask your doctor.

If you think you’ve been exposed to measles and haven't been vaccinated, can you still get the vaccine?

Yes, but you have to get it within 72 hours of exposure to be effective.


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