Measles: What Parents Need to Know

by Claire McCarthy on October 20, 2011

The MMR vaccine is the most efficient protection against measles

For years, measles has been rare in the United States, thanks to immunization.  But recently, that has changed.  This year we’ve seen lots of outbreaks, mostly started by unimmunized people going to or coming from countries that have lots of measles—and then giving the infection to unimmunized people here.  In Massachusetts we have had 24 cases of measles this year—19 since May!

What is measles?

Measles, also called rubeola, is a very contagious respiratory illness.

What causes it?

Measles is caused by a virus.  It is spread through the air when people with the illness cough, sneeze, or simply breathe near someone else.  It lives in the mucus of infected people, so if an infected person has mucus on their hands (from touching their mouth or nose) and touches something (like a doorknob), they can leave the virus behind for others to catch.

What are the symptoms?

The symptoms of measles include fever, runny nose, sore throat, rash, red eyes, cough, and body aches.  Sometimes people with measles get white spots in their mouth called Koplik spots.  The spots in the mouth and rash usually start a few days after the illness has begun, so at the beginning it can be hard to tell measles from the common cold or flu.

What can happen if you get measles?

Most people who get the measles recover completely, but there can be complications.  Possible complications include ear infections, pneumonia, encephalitis (a brain infection) or even death.

If a pregnant woman gets the measles, it can lead to miscarriage or premature birth.

Is there a treatment for measles?

There is no treatment that can get rid of the measles virus, but there are treatments to make people more comfortable and help support them through the illness.

What can I do to prevent measles?

Immunize!

The measles vaccine (as part of the measles, mumps, and rubella (MMR) vaccine) is safe and effective.  Two doses are recommended for people 12 months and older, at least 28 days apart.  Infants between 6 and 12 months traveling to areas of the world with lots of measles can be given a dose before they travel.  Adults should be sure they are fully immunized; anyone with any questions about their immunizations or their child’s immunizations should check with their doctor.

To prevent not just measles but lots of other infections, it’s always a good idea to wash your hands often.  Carry hand sanitizer with you, and use it regularly.

What should I do if I think someone in my family has the measles?

Because measles is so contagious, you should call your health care provider for advice before you head to the office or emergency room. If you do go to a doctor’s office or emergency room, immediately let the staff know that you are worried about measles so that they can put precautions into place.

How can I find out more?

Visit the CDC’s Measles website for lots of useful information, including photographs of people with measles and information on outbreaks and vaccination.

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