Measles

Measles is an infection that spreads very easily. It’s unpleasant and can sometimes have serious complications. Having the measles, mumps and rubella (MMR) vaccine is the best way to prevent it.

Anyone can get measles if they haven’t been vaccinated or they haven’t had it before. It’s most common in young children.

Measles usually clears in around 7 to 10 days.

Symptoms of measles

The first symptoms of measles develop around 10 days after you’re infected. These can include:

  • cold-like symptoms, such as a runny nose, sneezing, and a cough
  • sore, red eyes that may be sensitive to light
  • watery eyes
  • swollen eyes
  • a high temperature (fever), which may reach around 40°C (104°F)
  • small greyish-white spots in the mouth
  • aches and pains
  • loss of appetite
  • tiredness, irritability and a general lack of energy

The measles rash appears around 2 to 4 days after the initial symptoms and normally fades after about a week. The rash:

  • is made up of small red-brown, flat or slightly raised spots that may join together into larger blotchy patches
  • usually first appears on the head or neck, before spreading outwards to the rest of the body
  • is slightly itchy for some people
Measles rash

Go to A&E or phone 999 if:

You or your child have measles and:

  • shortness of breath
  • a high temperature that does not come down after taking paracetamol or ibuprofen
  • is coughing up blood
  • drowsiness
  • confusion
  • fits (convulsions)

Phone your GP urgently if:

  • you think you or your child might have measles
  • you’ve been in close contact with someone who has measles and you’ve not been fully vaccinated (had 2 doses of the MMR vaccine) or haven’t had the infection before – even if you don’t have any symptoms
  • you’ve been in close contact with someone who has measles and you’re pregnant – measles can be serious in pregnancy
  • you have a weakened immune system and think you have measles or have been in close contact with someone with measles

If your GP is closed, phone 111.

You should phone your GP first before visiting. They can make arrangements to reduce the risk of spreading the infection to others.

Is measles serious?

Measles can be unpleasant, but will usually pass in about 7 to 10 days without causing any further problems.

Once you’ve had measles, your body builds up resistance (immunity) to the virus. It’s highly unlikely you’ll get it again.

However, measles can lead to serious and potentially life-threatening complications in some people. These include infections of the lungs (pneumonia) and brain (encephalitis).

How measles is spread

The measles virus is contained in tiny droplets that come out of the nose and mouth when an infected person coughs or sneezes.

You can easily catch measles by breathing in these droplets. Or, if the droplets have settled on a surface, by touching the surface and then placing your hands near your nose or mouth. The virus can survive on surfaces for a few hours.

People with measles are infectious from when the symptoms develop until about 4 days after the rash first appears.

How to prevent spreading measles to others

If you have measles:

  • stay off school or work for at least 4 days from when the rash first appears
  • regularly wash your hands with soap
  • use and dispose of tissues when you sneeze
  • avoid close contact with anyone who isn’t fully vaccinated

How measles can be prevented

Measles can be prevented by having the MMR vaccine.

This is given in 2 doses as part of the NHS childhood vaccination programme.

You can be vaccinated at any age if you haven’t been fully vaccinated before.

If the MMR vaccine isn’t suitable for you, a treatment called human normal immunoglobulin (HNIG) can be used if you’re at immediate risk of catching measles.

Treatment for measles

There are things you can do to help relieve your symptoms.

Do

  • take paracetamol or ibuprofen to relieve fever, aches and pains – aspirin should not be given to children under 16 years old
  • drink plenty of water to avoid dehydration
  • close the curtains to help reduce light sensitivity
  • use damp cotton wool to clean the eyes

In severe cases, especially if there are complications, you or your child may need to be admitted to hospital for treatment.


Last updated:
01 February 2024

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