Measles is a highly contagious viral disease which is largely spread through coughing and sneezing. Measles can sometimes be fatal, and in many cases causes severe complications such as pneumonia and encephalitis (swelling of the brain). Measles is most common in young children, and one of the most distinctive features is a blotchy rash that covers the body. It is estimated by the World Health Organization that around 430 people around the world die each day from measles.

Measles is usually fatal in around 1 in 5000 cases, however, in poorer regions this increases to 1 in 100
Risk areas
Widespread around the world
Long-term effects
1 case for every 10000-2000 cases of measles
People at highest risk
Babies under 1 year of age, children with poor nutrition, immunocompromised children, teenagers and adults

01. Causes

Measles is a viral infection which is spread primarily through water droplets. When a person infected with measles, millions of tiny droplets are dispersed when they cough or sneeze. These tiny droplets contain the measles virus, and you can catch measles by breathing in these droplets, or touching a surface where the droplets have settled.

The measles virus can remain active for up to 2 hours in the air and on surfaces. People who are infected with measles become infectious up to 4 days before the onset of the rash.

02. Is measles contagious?

Measles is highly contagious, and it is very likely that if you have come into contact with someone with measles, you will catch it too. Symptoms from measles usually appear around 10 days after infection.

03. Risk areas

Measles is still widespread throughout the world, with a higher number of cases in poorer regions. In the UK in recent years the number of cases of measles have risen, due to a falling vaccination rate.

Unvaccinated children and pregnant women are at the highest risk of measles complications. You should get vaccinated against measles if you live in the UK or are travelling to an endemic area.

04. Symptoms

Measles usually starts with a set of common symptoms, including:

  • cold-like symptoms, such as a runny nose, sneezing and coughing

  • red eyes, which can be sore and sensitive to light

  • aches and pains

  • tiredness and irritability and a general feeling of being unwell

  • a high temperature

  • small grey-white spots in the mouth and throat

One of the most easily identifiable symptoms of measles is a blotchy red rash. The measles rash usually appears 2 to 4 days after the initial onset of symptoms, and should fade after about a week.

The measles rash is quite distinctive and can be identified by the following characteristics:

  • small red-brown blotchy patches that can join up into larger spots

  • these spots can be flat or slightly raised

  • it can be itchy in some cases

  • usually appears on the head or neck and then spreads out over the rest of the body

05. Treatment

There is no cure for measles, but in mild cases it can help to:

  • get lots of rest

  • drink a lot of fluids

06. Risk groups

Unvaccinated children are at a high risk of catching measles. The majority of children who die from measles are under the age of 5.

Certain groups are more likely to suffer from complications when they catch measles.

This includes:

  • babies who are younger than 1 year old

  • children who have a poor diet

  • children who have weak immune systems

Adults who catch measles are also more likely to suffer from complications, particularly pregnant women.

Complications can include:

  • miscarriage or stillbirth

  • premature birth

  • your baby could be born with a low birthweight

If you are pregnant and are not vaccinated, and think you may have come into contact with someone with measles, it is essential that you see a GP as soon as possible.

07. Complications

Severe complications from measles occur in a small number of cases. Some of these complications can cause lasting effects.

Some of the most severe complications include:

  • Ear infection, in around 1 in 12 cases

  • Pneumonia, in around 1 in 16 cases

  • Diarrhoea, in around 1 in 12 cases

  • Encephalitis (inflammation of the brain), occurring in around 1 case for every 1,000 to 2,000 cases

In some people encephalitis can lead to lasting brain damage.

In very rare cases, measles can lead to a fatal brain complication called subacute sclerosing panencephalitis (SSPE). This can occur several years after measles infection, and happens in around 1 in 25,000 cases).

08. Prevention

The best way to prevent catching measles is through the MMR vaccine.

If you or your child need to get the MMR vaccine, you can book a vaccination appointment online today.

If you are unsure if the MMR vaccine is right for you, book a free telephone consultation to speak to one of our prescribing nurses who can advise you.

  • check if you need the MMR vaccine

  • find out more about measles symptoms (particularly the rash) so you can spot them

  • avoid contact with anyone who has been infected with measles

  • if you think you have measles, stay at home for at least 4 days after developing the rash and avoid contact with other people

Content reviewed by

Anne-Marie Major
24 August 2020