causes of measles

Measles: Causes, Symptoms and More

Measles is a highly contagious viral infection that primarily targets the respiratory system and can lead to serious complications. Symptoms include a widespread rash, fever, cough, and white spots inside the mouth. It’s important to seek medical care promptly.

Children, people with weakened immune systems, and pregnant individuals are more likely to develop measles, also known as rubeola, after being exposed to the virus. However, anyone can contract the virus and develop the disease.

Here’s what you need to know about measles symptoms, complications, treatment, and more.

What are the Symptoms of Measles?

What are the Symptoms of Measles

Symptoms of measles usually appear about 14 days after exposure to the virus.

A widespread skin rash is a hallmark of measles. It typically starts on the head and gradually spreads to other parts of the body, covering most of the skin. The rash consists of flat, tiny spots and raised bumps that eventually merge into a continuous rash from head to toe. Depending on your skin color, the rash may look red, brown, blue, or different from the surrounding skin. Measles rashes are generally not itchy.

Other symptoms of measles include:

  • Cough
  • High fever
  • Runny nose
  • Eye irritation, including redness and swelling
  • Sore throat
  • White spots inside the mouth, known as Koplik spots

How Long Does Measles Last?

How Long Does Measles Last

The incubation period for measles, the time between exposure to the virus and the onset of symptoms, is typically between 11 and 12 days. During this period, you may experience nonspecific symptoms such as fever, cough, eye irritation, and a runny nose—symptoms that can also occur with other illnesses.

About 2 to 4 days after the initial symptoms, a rash will start to develop. This rash usually lasts for 6 days but can persist for up to 21 days.

Measles is contagious from about 4 days before the rash appears until approximately 4 days after the rash has disappeared.

What are the Complications of Measles?

What are the Complications of Measles

Common minor complications of measles can include ear infections and diarrhea. It's important to manage these issues promptly.

Serious complications of measles that require immediate medical attention include:

  • Pneumonia
  • Encephalitis
  • Subacute sclerosing panencephalitis
  • Pregnancy-related effects

Measles can also be fatal, especially for vulnerable individuals.

What Causes Measles and How is it Spread?

What Causes Measles and How is it Spread

Measles is caused by a virus from the Paramyxoviridae family. These viruses are tiny parasitic microbes.

Measles is extremely contagious. Up to 9 out of 10 people exposed to the virus will get infected. A person with measles can transmit the virus to about 9–18 other individuals.

The virus spreads through the air or by direct contact with droplets when an infected person breathes, sneezes, talks, or coughs near you. You can also contract the virus by touching a contaminated object and then touching your face, eyes, nose, or mouth. The virus can survive in the air or on surfaces for up to 2 hours.

Once exposed, the virus enters your body and infects host cells, using the cells' components to replicate. Initially, it infects the respiratory tract and eventually spreads to other parts of the body through the bloodstream.

Measles is a human-specific disease and does not occur in animals.

How is Measles Diagnosed?

How is Measles Diagnosed

A healthcare provider may diagnose measles by examining your rash and assessing other symptoms such as white spots in your mouth, fever, and cough. They might confirm the diagnosis with a blood test that detects the virus.

The measles rash may not appear until several days after exposure to the virus. If you notice any symptoms or already have the rash, it's important to inform a healthcare provider promptly.

How is Measles Treated?

How is Measles Treated

Unlike bacterial infections, antibiotics are ineffective against viral infections like measles. The virus and its symptoms typically resolve on their own within about 3 weeks. Therefore, treatment for measles focuses on alleviating symptoms and reducing the risk of complications.

If you've been exposed to the measles virus, even before experiencing symptoms, a healthcare provider may take the following steps:

  • Administering a measles vaccine within 72 hours of exposure
  • Prescribing immunoglobulin, a dose of immune proteins, within 6 days of exposure

For acute symptoms such as cough and fever, they may recommend:

  • Resting to support your immune system
  • Drinking plenty of fluids
  • Using a humidifier to ease cough and sore throat
  • Incorporating vitamin A supplements into your regimen

Can Adults Get Measles?

Can Adults Get Measles

Yes, adults can contract measles, and they may be more susceptible to complications. If you are over 20 years old and have been in contact with someone diagnosed with measles, it is crucial to promptly consult a healthcare professional and take precautions to prevent spreading the virus to others.

Can Babies Get Measles?

Can Babies Get Measles

Before receiving their first measles vaccine around age 1, babies can acquire the measles virus. Babies receive some protection against measles through passive immunity transferred from their mother via the placenta and during breastfeeding.

However, research from 2021 suggests this immunity depends on the mother’s antibody levels and may only last until infants are about 7 months old. Children under 5 years old are more susceptible to measles complications if they are not vaccinated.

Measles vs. Rubella

Measles vs Rubella

Rubella, also known as German measles, is caused by a different virus than measles. Although rubella is less contagious than measles, it can lead to severe complications during pregnancy.

Despite being caused by different viruses, measles and rubella share similarities:

  • They spread through the air via coughing or sneezing.
  • Both cause fever and characteristic rashes.
  • They affect only humans.

How Can You Prevent Measles?

Prevention from measles and developing complications involves several preventive measures. Aside from taking certain shots, here are some other preventative measures:

  • Hand Hygiene: Wash hands regularly, especially before eating and after using the bathroom or touching your face.
  • Avoid Sharing Personal Items: Refrain from sharing utensils, glasses, or toothbrushes with potentially infected individuals.
  • Avoid Contact with Sick Individuals: Steer clear of those exhibiting symptoms like coughing or runny nose.

If You Have Measles:

  • Isolate Yourself: Stay home from work, school, and public places until at least 4 days after the measles rash disappears.
  • Avoid Contact: Stay away from infants who are too young to be vaccinated and individuals with compromised immune systems.
  • Practice Respiratory Etiquette: Cover your nose and mouth when sneezing or coughing, and promptly dispose of tissues.

By following these measures, you can help prevent the spread of measles and protect vulnerable individuals who cannot be vaccinated.

Can You Get Measles During Pregnancy?

Pregnant individuals without immunity to measles can contract the infection if exposed to the virus.

Pregnancy increases the risk of complications from measles, including pneumonia. Additionally, measles during pregnancy can lead to the following pregnancy and birth complications:

  • Pregnancy loss
  • Premature birth
  • Low birth weight
  • Stillbirth

Measles can also be transmitted to the baby during delivery if the parent giving birth has an active measles infection. This condition is known as congenital measles. Babies with congenital measles may develop a rash shortly after birth and are at high risk for complications.


Measles is caused by a viral infection and is highly contagious, posing serious complications and even death for individuals including children and adults.

Most people recover from measles within 3 weeks, but early diagnosis is crucial to avoid complications. If you suspect exposure to the measles virus, seeking prompt medical attention is strongly recommended.

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