You may have heard the recent outbreak of measles in England on the news or in the newspapers. I wanted to take the time to explain what measles is and how it can be prevented in a Q&A format.
What is measles?
It is a highly infectious viral illness caused by the rubeola virus that can be very unpleasant and sometimes lead to serious complications. It is an endemic disease, meaning it is continually present in a community. Measles is a very infectious, serious illness that, in rare cases, can be fatal. About 1 in 5 children with measles experiences complications such as ear infections, diarrhoea and vomiting, pneumonia, meningitis and eye disorders. One in 10 children with measles ends up in hospital. There is no treatment for the disease. Vaccination is the only way of preventing it.
Who can get measles?
Anyone can get measles if they haven't been vaccinated or they haven't had it before, although it's most common in young children.
How do you get measles, how is it spread?
The measles virus is contained in the millions of 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 four days after the rash first appears.
What are the symptoms?
Measles starts with cold-like symptoms that develop about 10 days after becoming infected. This is followed a few days later by the measles rash. For most people, the illness lasts around 7 to 10 days in total. However, measles can lead to serious and potentially life-threatening complications in some people. These include infections of the lungs (pneumonia) and brain (encephalitis).
The initial symptoms of measles can include:
- a runny or blocked nose
- watery eyes
- swollen eyelids
- sore, red eyes that may be sensitive to light
- a high temperature (fever), which may reach around 40C (104F)
- small greyish-white spots in the mouth (see below)
- aches and pains
- a cough
- 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. You'll usually feel most ill on the first or second day after the rash develops.
- 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
- can look similar to other childhood conditions, such as slapped cheek syndrome, roseola or rubella
- is unlikely to be caused by measles if the person has been fully vaccinated (had 2 doses of the MMR vaccine) or had measles before
How is measles treated?
There are several things you can do to help relieve your symptoms and reduce the risk of spreading the infection, including:
- taking paracetamol or ibuprofen to relieve fever, aches and pains – aspirin should not be given to children under 16 years old
- drinking plenty of water to avoid dehydration
- closing the curtains to help reduce light sensitivity
- using damp cotton wool to clean the eyes
- staying off school or work for at least four days from when the rash first appears
In severe cases, especially if there are complications, you or your child may need to be admitted to hospital for treatment.
Can measles be prevented?
Measles can be prevented by having the measles, mumps and rubella (MMR) vaccine. This is given in two doses as part of the NHS childhood vaccination programme. The first dose is given when your child is around 13 months old and a second dose is given before your child starts school. Adults and older children can be vaccinated at any age if they 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.
Measles is common in many countries around the world and there are currently several large measles outbreaks across Europe. We will continue to see imported measles cases in the UK and anyone who has not had two doses of the MMR vaccine can catch it.
Anyone planning to travel to Europe should make sure they are up to date with their MMR vaccines. Unvaccinated people travelling to Romania, Italy and Germany – where there are large outbreaks – are at particularly high risk.
For more information on measles outbreak please visit: https://www.nhs.uk/conditions/vaccinations/measles-outbreak-advice/