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Factsheet for general public

Measles is…

Measles is an acute, highly contagious viral disease capable of producing epidemics. Measles can be very serious if complications arise. Measles occurs only in human beings and it can be contracted at any age. You can only have measles once and both vaccination and disease produce life-long protection.

Symptoms

Symptoms usually appear after 10-12 days of infection, initially resembling a cold with a runny nose, cough and a slight fever. The eyes become red and sensitive to light. As the illness progresses, and usually on the third to seventh day, the temperature may reach up to 39-41 ⁰C, and a red rash lasting four to seven days appears. The rash begins on the face and then spreads over the entire body. Small white spots (Koplik’s spots) may also appear on the gums and inside of the cheeks.

Complications

Measles is often complicated by secondary ear infections, diarrhoea and pneumonia, which is the most common cause of measles-related death. About 1 out of 1,000 measles patients develop inflammation of the brain tissue (encephalitis), a condition which results in permanent neurologic handicap in approximately one of four cases. Very rarely, a persistent measles virus infection can produce subacute sclerosing panencephalitis (SSPE), a disease in which nerves and brain tissue degenerate progressively. SSPE typically presents several years after the affected patient had measles, on average 7 to 10 years after. The symptoms include personality changes, gradual mental deterioration, muscles spasms and other neuromuscular symptoms.  There is no cure for SSPE and it always leads to death.

Ways to catch measles

Measles virus is spread via airborne droplets produced when the infected person coughs. Virus-containing droplets can remain in the air for several hours and the virus remains infectious on contaminated surfaces for up to two hours. A person who is infected may transmit measles even before the rash appears (usually 4 days), and about 4 days after the rash has appeared. It is estimated that between 8 and 15 people can be infected by a single case of measles.

People most at risk

All those not vaccinated against measles and did not have the disease are at risk of getting measles at any age. A blood test can show if you have been vaccinated against measles or if you have had the disease.

How to avoid getting measles

The only protection against measles is vaccination.  The vaccine is usually given together with mumps and rubella in a combined vaccine called MMR. Two doses of vaccine are needed for maximum protection.  The first dose is given between 12 and 18 months of age in most European countries, the second dose is given starting one month after the first dose. Measles vaccine is given earlier in life during outbreaks and infants who will travel to areas with high risk of exposure to measles should receive a first dose from 6-9 months of age. The MMR vaccine is safe and effective and generally has very few side effects. Mild reactions such as fever, redness or swelling at the injection site have been reported. Some vaccine recipients develop a mild measles like rash which disappears within 1-3 days.

Diagnosis

Measles is diagnosed by a combination of clinical symptoms and laboratory tests.

Treatment

There is no specific treatment for measles.  Most people will recover with supportive treatment including hydration and antipyretics.  Antibiotics are not effective against the measles virus but they are often used to treat complicating secondary bacterial infection such as pneumonia and ear infections.

What to do if you think you might have measles or if you have been exposed to measles

If you think you have measles, you should seek medical attention and inform the clinic in advance to avoid infecting other clients. Cover your mouth and nose to reduce the risk of spreading the virus to others. If you have been exposed to measles and you have not been immunised, then vaccination with MMR vaccine can prevent development of disease if given early (within 72 hrs after exposure). Infants and immune-compromised patients may benefit from immunoglobulin. 

Note: The information contained in this factsheet is intended for the purpose of general information and should not be used as a substitute for the individual expertise and judgement of healthcare professional.

© European Centre for Disease Prevention and Control (ECDC) 2005 - 2017