Measles is a very contagious disease that causes fever, a red rash, cough and watery eyes. It can have serious complications in some people. Getting the measles vaccine is the best way to prevent getting and spreading measles.


Child with measles on their stomach.
Measles is a contagious virus that causes spots on your skin and fever.

What is measles?

Measles (rubeola) is a viral disease that causes fever and a rash. It’s highly contagious and spreads through the air when a person with measles talks, coughs or sneezes. There isn’t a medical treatment for measles — you have to let the virus run its course. The best protection against measles is to receive the measles vaccine.

Since the introduction of a vaccine, measles isn’t nearly as common as before the availability of a vaccine. However, because immunization rates have been declining in the United States, outbreaks of measles have occurred in recent years. Vaccination rates are also not high in many parts of the world. This means you can get measles when you travel internationally. Anyone who hasn’t been vaccinated against measles is at risk of getting it.

Measles is also called rubeola, 10-day measles or red measles. It’s not the same as German measles (rubella).

Does anyone still get measles?

Anyone who hasn’t received the measles vaccination can get measles. Before the measles vaccine was available, almost everyone got measles as a child. If you’ve had measles or were vaccinated against measles, you’re probably immune.

Due to a successful vaccination program, measles in the U.S. was virtually eliminated by 2000. However, there’ve been recent cases and outbreaks. The U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) reported nearly 120 cases in the U.S. in 2022.

As some countries don’t have a vaccine program to prevent measles, people traveling from other countries can pose a risk of spreading measles. You can reduce this risk by getting the measles vaccine. Millions of cases happen worldwide every year.


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Symptoms and Causes

What are the symptoms of measles?

Symptoms typically develop about eight to 12 days after you’re exposed to someone with measles. But there have been times that it takes up to 21 days to develop symptoms after exposure.

The most common measles symptoms include:

A few days after these symptoms begin, you’ll develop a red, blotchy rash that spreads from your face to the rest of your body. The rash itself lasts about seven to 10 days.

Other measles symptoms may include:

What does the measles rash look like?

The rash starts out as flat red spots on your face and then moves downward to cover your whole body. Then, smaller raised white spots may appear on top of the red rash. The spots might join together as the rash goes down your body.


Which virus causes measles?

An extremely contagious virus called morbillivirus causes measles. It’s an airborne disease, which means it spreads through the air when an infected person breathes, coughs, sneezes or talks. If you breathe in the particles from someone who has measles, you can get measles, too. The airborne droplets can remain in a room for two hours even after the person with measles is gone. Droplets can land on surfaces and spread that way as well.

Measles is spread by:

  • Sharing drinks or food with someone with measles.
  • Kissing someone who has measles.
  • Shaking hands, holding hands or hugging someone with measles.
  • Touching a surface containing the virus and then touching your mouth, nose or eyes.
  • From pregnant people to their babies — either during the pregnancy, delivery or while nursing.

How long is measles contagious?

You’re contagious about four days before you develop a rash until about four days after the rash starts. That’s about eight days in total.

Is it safe to be around someone with measles?

Measles is highly contagious. It’s so contagious that if 10 people who weren’t vaccinated were in a room with someone with measles, nine of those people would get measles. The best way to prevent getting measles is to get vaccinated.

Who is at risk for measles?

Anyone who hasn’t gotten the measles vaccine is at risk of getting it. You’re also at higher risk if you travel to parts of the world where measles is more common.

People who work in healthcare or childcare facilities are also more at risk because they’re more likely to interact with sick people. Take extra precautions like wearing personal protective equipment that includes masks, gowns and gloves. If you work with children, promote good handwashing techniques, and educate parents and guardians about symptoms of viral diseases.

What are the complications of measles?

There are many complications associated with measles, and some can be very serious. Some people are more likely to experience complications, including:

  • Infants and toddlers.
  • Pregnant people.
  • Adults 20 or older.
  • People with weakened immune systems (immunocompromised).

Complications of measles include:

Before widespread immunization, about 400 to 500 people died each year from measles.


Diagnosis and Tests

How is measles diagnosed?

A healthcare provider will usually be able to diagnose measles with a good history and physical exam and looking at the rash. However, they may order laboratory tests to find the virus in samples of:

  • Blood.
  • Secretions from your nose and throat.
  • Urine (pee).

Management and Treatment

How is measles treated?

There’s no cure for measles. The virus must run its course, which usually takes about 10 to 14 days.

You can manage your symptoms by:

  • Taking acetaminophen or NSAIDs for aches, pains or fever.
  • Getting plenty of rest.
  • Drinking lots of fluids.
  • Gargling with salt water.
  • Avoiding harsh light if your eyes hurt.

You should stay home from work or keep your child home from school to prevent spreading measles to others. You’re usually able to return to your normal activities after you’ve had the rash for four days. People in your household who aren’t vaccinated are at risk of getting measles and should stay away from the infected person.

Note: Never give aspirin to children or teenagers unless your healthcare provider specifically tells you to because of the risk of Reye’s syndrome.


Can you prevent measles?

Yes, vaccination is the best way to prevent measles. If you receive a measles vaccine, you’re immune and unlikely ever to get the virus. The measles vaccine is extremely effective at preventing measles.

There are two types of vaccines (given as shots) that protect against measles:

When should people be vaccinated for measles?

It’s best to receive the vaccine as a child as part of your regular immunization schedule. But receiving the vaccine at any age is better than not receiving it at all. Most people receive the vaccine as a baby, but you can also receive it as an adult.

MMR vaccine

Healthcare providers recommend two doses of the MMR vaccine for children. The first shot is given when children are around 12 to 15 months old. They usually need the second dose when they’re 4 or 5 years old. If your child hasn’t been immunized, measles can still be prevented by receiving the vaccine within three days of exposure to the virus. If you plan on traveling internationally with your child, you can get them an early dose of the vaccine starting at 6 months old. You still must complete the other two doses later.

If you’re an adult and unsure about whether you’ve been vaccinated against measles, talk to your healthcare provider about getting the vaccine. It’s especially important if you’re planning to travel internationally. In most cases, it doesn’t hurt to get another measles vaccine.

MMRV vaccine

This vaccine combines the measles-mumps-rubella vaccine with the chickenpox (varicella) vaccine. It’s only available for children ages 12 months to 12 years of age. (Anyone older than 13 gets the MMR vaccine.) Your child should get one shot between 12 and 15 months. Your child should get the second shot around age 4 or 5. However, the second shot can also be given three months after the first shot. Talk to your child’s healthcare provider about the best timing for your child.

Can a child still get measles after vaccination?

It’s unlikely that your child will get measles if they receive both doses of the vaccine. It’s important to receive both doses.

Who shouldn’t get a measles vaccine?

Pregnant people shouldn’t get a measles vaccine. There may be other reasons why you shouldn’t get one, such as having immune system disease or an allergic reaction to a previous vaccine.

Outlook / Prognosis

What is the outlook for someone who has measles?

The outcome is excellent for most cases of measles. Once the disease passes, you’ll most likely be protected against getting measles again. In cases where there are severe complications, the outlook for long-term problems varies on a case-by-case basis.

When can I go back to work or school if I’ve had measles?

You should wait at least four days after you get the rash to go back to work or school.

Living With

When should I contact my healthcare provider?

Contact your healthcare provider if you think you or your child have had contact with someone with measles. If you or your child has measles and seem to be getting worse and not better, call your provider. People who are pregnant and infants younger than 12 months are most susceptible to complications, so it’s important to contact a healthcare provider if either of these apply to you.

Additional Common Questions

What disease mimics the measles?

Measles isn’t the only virus that causes symptoms like a skin rash and a fever. There are several viruses that cause similar symptoms such as roseola and rubella. Contact your healthcare provider if you notice any skin rashes, fevers and other symptoms that mimic measles.

What rash can be mistaken for measles?

Other diseases that cause a rash that may be mistaken for measles include:

A note from Cleveland Clinic

Contact your healthcare provider if you come into contact with someone who has measles. While most cases of measles may be uncomfortable, you can treat the symptoms with rest and over-the-counter pain relievers. But measles can cause serious complications for anyone, but especially for people who are pregnant, as well as young children. Getting the measles vaccine is the best way to protect yourself and others from the virus.

Medically Reviewed

Last reviewed on 11/16/2023.

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