Measles is a viral illness, highly contagious, that generally presents with a fever and rashes on the skin. Left untreated, measles can cause pneumonia or brain inflammation (encephalitis) and can even be fatal. Also known as rubeola, measles has in recent years become extremely rare in Australia, with only a few cases reported each year. This is largely due to the measles vaccine, which protects the vast majority of Australian children who receive it from contracting the illness. However, across the rest of the world, measles is the fifth highest cause of death and illness in children.

How do you get measles?

Measles is spread among people, usually by sharing bodily fluids. Inhaling air that contains moisture from a cough or sneeze from someone else, or saliva or mucus droplets, can all transmit the measles virus. It can stay alive outside the human body for several hours.

In addition to directly inhaling the measles virus from another carrier, the measles virus can be passed through contaminated surfaces or objects. If someone with measles coughs and touches a door handle and you touch it shortly afterwards, then transfer any contamination to your mouth or nose, you may contract the measles virus. It is highly contagious. A person infected with measles may infect up to 90% of the people with whom they come into contact.

What are the symptoms of measles?

The symptoms of measles are reasonably consistent between people, and usually show up around 10 to 12 days after the initial infection. Generally, you can observe some of the following symptoms in a person with measles:

  • A general feeling of being ill, malaise, and discomfort.
  • A dry cough, sometimes accompanied by a runny nose.
  • Conjunctivitis or eyes that are generally sore, red or itchy.
  • Koplik’s spots – these are red or blue spots inside the mouth.
  • Skin rash – the skin will go blotchy and red around the face, the hairline and then spread out across the rest of the body.

What happens when you get measles?

Beyond feeling extremely ill, a person who contracts the measles will likely experience some of the below complications:

  • Vomiting and Diarrhoea (which may lead to other issues, such as dehydration).
  • Pneumonia – a common complication of measles, this is the cause of around 60% of deaths.
  • Other respiratory infections – bronchitis and laryngitis are common.
  • Brain inflammation – otherwise known as encephalitis, it is fairly uncommon as a measles complication, but it can cause death or permanent brain damage. 

How is measles diagnosed?

There are a range of tests and investigations that can be conducted to arrive at a diagnosis of measles. Commonly, doctors will:

  • Enquire about your medical history, particularly whether you have received a measles vaccine or if you have recently travelled to parts of the world that are known for measles.
  • Perform a physical examination to search for physical symptoms and manifestations of a measles infection, such as rashes or inflammation.
  • Take a blood sample and run a blood test. This can help confirm a diagnosis of measles.

How long does measles last?

Most people who contract measles are ill for around two weeks. If they suffer from complications, treatment and recovery of those complications can greatly extend that period. Following a sensible treatment regimen can help accelerate recovery.

How is measles treated?

Rest is the most important element in recovering from measles. As a viral infection, antibiotics won’t help, so the body needs to fight the infection itself, and should be supported as much as possible in that endeavour. Bed rest and plenty of fluids to avoid dehydration is critical. Some basic painkillers to help the patient relax and sleep can be helpful, and temperature should be monitored and maintained in a safe range.

Throughout recovery (and even afterwards, until the person is thoroughly recovered and thus no longer likely to transmit the illness) the measles patient should be kept isolated. If a person’s condition deteriorates, they may require hospitalisation, support, close care and sometimes antibiotics if a bacterial infection has taken hold due to the weakened immune system.

How immunisation against measles works

The measles vaccine is usually delivered in two doses, with the first occurring at 12 months of age and the second at 18 months of age. This is the MMR vaccine, which treats measles, mumps and rubella (German measles). Some new versions of the second vaccine include a chickenpox vaccination in the second shot. Children who have received both shots of the measles vaccine have a 99% immunity against measles.

Can anyone get the measles vaccine?

Most people can receive the measles vaccine. In Australia, anyone can receive the free vaccines up to the age of 20. Over that age, women who are planning to become pregnant or who have recently had a child can also receive the vaccination.

Some people should not receive the measles vaccine. Anyone with an impaired immune system should not receive it, or those who are currently pregnant. For this reason, it is extremely important that all people who can safely receive the vaccine do get it, as some of the most vulnerable people in society cannot be immunised and must rely on those around them to prevent the spread of the disease.

Speak to a doctor about measles

If you are unsure whether you or your child need to get the measles vaccine, or you are looking to book an appointment, speak with one of our doctors to get more information.

Click here to find a SmartClinics Medical Centre near you.

Did you know that you can click here to use our Doctor search tool to search for a GP by special interest, location, gender and language?