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Frequently asked questions about measles

1. What is measles? How is it spread?

Measles is a highly contagious, serious respiratory disease caused by a virus that can lead to severe health problems and hospitalization. In rare cases, it can be deadly.

The virus lives in the nose and throat and spreads easily through the air when an infected person breathes, talks, coughs, or sneezes. The virus remains active and contagious in the air or on surfaces for up to two hours. People can get infected when they breathe contaminated air or touch their eyes, nose, or mouth after touching contaminated surfaces.  A person infected with measles can spread the disease to others 4 days before they have a rash through 4 days after the rash appears. Measles spreads so easily that anyone who is exposed to it and is not immune (such as someone who has not been vaccinated) will probably get the disease.

Learn more about measles vaccine, where to get vaccinated, vaccine safety, and info for parents.

2. How serious is measles?

Measles can be a serious illness for all age groups and can cause conditions like pneumonia, ear infections, and permanent brain damage. About one out of 10 children with measles also gets an ear infection, and up to one out of 20 gets pneumonia. One or two out of 1,000 die from measles. Measles can also cause those who are pregnant to miscarry or give birth prematurely. Serious health problems from measles are more common among children younger than five and adults older than 20. 

3. What are the symptoms of measles?

Measles symptoms appear 7 to 21 days after coming into contact with the virus. It usually progresses in two stages. In the first stage, illness begins with fever, runny nose, cough, and red, watery eyes that can last 2 to 4 days. The second stage begins with the appearance of a rash. The non-itchy raised, red, spotty rash starts on the face and spreads downward covering the body, arms, and legs. Symptoms usually last 7-10 days.

4. How do you prevent getting the measles?

The measles, mumps, rubella (MMR) vaccine is the best protection against measles.  Two doses of MMR vaccine are about 97% effective at preventing measles. One dose is about 93% effective. Numerous studies of MMR vaccine by doctors and scientists have concluded that the MMR vaccine is safe.
Measles vaccine is recommended for everyone 1 year old and older. When more than 95 percent of people are vaccinated against measles, the disease slows down and doesn’t spread. This is called community (or herd) immunity.

5. What should I do if I’m unsure whether I’m immune to measles?

You develop immunity if you’ve had measles in the past or MMR vaccination. If you’re unsure whether you’re immune to measles, you should first try to find your vaccination records or documentation of measles immunity. If you do not have written documentation of measles immunity, you should get vaccinated with measles-mumps-rubella (MMR) vaccine. 
Another option is to have a doctor test your blood to determine whether you’re immune. But this option is likely to cost more and will take two doctor’s visits. There is no harm in getting another dose of MMR vaccine, even if you may already be immune to measles (or mumps or rubella).

6. What does measles look like?

The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention offers photos that show what measles looks like.

7. How is measles treated?

There is no cure for measles. Treatment focuses on relieving symptoms and managing any serious conditions that can develop. This may include fluid replacement, medications to control fever or pain, antibiotics to treat bacterial infections, and vitamin A supplements. 

8. Is Vitamin A used to prevent or treat measles?

Vitamin A cannot prevent or cure measles, but is used to prevent severe health problems, including preventing death in children who don’t have enough vitamin A. Severe measles cases among children, such as those who are hospitalized, should be treated with vitamin A.

9. Isn’t measles rare in the United States?

Before the measles vaccine, measles caused about 400 deaths in the U.S. each year. Most people in the U.S. are now vaccinated against measles or are immune from having measles as a child, but outbreaks do happen. Most commonly, measles is brought into the U.S. by someone who has traveled outside the country. When unvaccinated people are exposed, measles spreads very quickly.

10. Who is at risk from measles?

Anyone who hasn’t been vaccinated or had measles in the past is at risk. Babies younger than 12 months are at risk because they are too young to have been vaccinated. Others at highest risk include children under 5 years, adults over 20 years, anyone who is pregnant, and people with weakened immune systems.

11. What if someone in my family may have measles or was exposed to someone with measles?

Call your doctor, nurse, or clinic right away. Before you go to the doctor’s office, call to tell them that you or your family member might have measles. This will allow them to take steps to avoid exposing other people. Stay away from other people until at least four days after the rash starts or a test proves it’s not measles.

12. Where can I get more information about measles?