Measles is a contagious disease that causes fever, a red rash, cough and red eyes. It can have serious complications such as encephalitis, which itself can cause hearing loss. You can prevent measles by getting vaccinated.


picture of child with measles
Measles covering the abdomen

What is measles?

Measles is an airborne disease caused by a virus, and it’s very contagious. Symptoms may develop about eight to 12 days after you’re exposed. Symptoms can last 10 to 14 days.

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


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What is the difference between measles and German measles?

Measles (rubeola) and German measles (rubella) are similar in some ways. They have some symptoms in common, such as fever, sore throat and rash. However, the virus that causes measles is different than the virus that causes German measles.

German measles is very serious for those who are pregnant. This condition can cause the person to miscarry or can cause birth defects in the baby. Both viral diseases can be prevented by getting one vaccine.

Who does measles affect?

Anyone who isn’t vaccinated can get measles. Before the measles vaccine was available, almost everyone got measles. If you have had measles or were vaccinated against measles, you’re more likely to be immune to the measles virus. (You can still get atypical or modified measles after the vaccine.)

Due to a successful vaccination program, measles in the U.S. was virtually eliminated by 2000. Now, however, there’ve been outbreaks due to a significant number of parents who decide against vaccinating their children. Unvaccinated international travelers have always posed a risk, but the risk is lessened by making sure you get vaccinated.


Symptoms and Causes

What are the symptoms of measles?

The most common symptoms of measles include:

Other symptoms of measles may include:

  • A sore throat.
  • White spots in the mouth.
  • Muscle pain.
  • Sensitivity to light (light makes your eyes hurt).

What does the measles rash look like?

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


What causes measles?

Measles is caused by an extremely contagious virus called morbillivirus. In fact, if 10 people who weren’t vaccinated were in a room with someone with measles, nine of those people would get measles. Measles is spread by:

  • Contaminated droplets that are spread through the air when you cough, sneeze or talk.
  • Kissing someone who has measles.
  • Sharing drinks or food with someone with measles.
  • Shaking hands or holding hands or hugging someone with measles.
  • From pregnant people to their babies — either during the pregnancy, delivery or while nursing.

The airborne respiratory droplets can remain in the room even after the person with measles is gone.

It can take six to 21 days to develop symptoms of measles after you’ve been infected. This is the incubation period. You’re contagious about four days before you develop a rash to about four days after the rash starts.

Diagnosis and Tests

How is measles diagnosed?

Your healthcare provider will probably be able to diagnose measles by examining you. 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 do some things that might make you feel better, such as:

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

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

What are the complications of measles?

There are many complications associated with measles, some of them very serious. Complications happen most often in:

  • Children ages 5 years old or younger.
  • Pregnant people.
  • Adults ages 20 or older.
  • People with weakened immune systems.

Complications of measles include:

  • Diarrhea.
  • Ear infections.
  • Pneumonia.
  • Encephalitis. This condition can cause inflammation of the brain, leading to seizures, hearing loss or learning disabilities.
  • Death. Before the vaccine was widely used in the U.S., about 400 to 500 people died each year from measles.


When should people be vaccinated for measles?

There are two types of vaccines that protect against measles: the measles, mumps, rubella (MMR) vaccine and the measles, mumps, rubella, varicella (MMRV) vaccine.

MMR vaccine

For children, the MMR vaccine is often given in two shots. The first shot is given around the age of 12 to 15 months, and the second around 4 or 5 years of age. If a child hasn’t been immunized, measles can still be prevented by receiving the vaccine within three days of exposure to the virus.

If you’re an adult and you’re unsure about whether you’ve been vaccinated, talk to your healthcare provider about getting the vaccine. It’s especially important if you are planning to travel internationally.

MMRV vaccine

This vaccine is only available for children ages 12 months to 12 years of age. Your child should get one shot between 12 and 15 months. Your child should get the second shot between 4 and 6 years. However, the second shot can be given three months after the first shot. Talk to your child’s healthcare provider about the best timing for your child.

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 an immune system disease or an allergic reaction to a previous vaccine. There may be reasons why you should wait to get one. It’s important to discuss this with your healthcare provider and to answer all the questions they ask about your medical history.

What precautions can I take if I may be exposed to measles?

The best way to prevent measles is to get vaccinated. People who work in a healthcare facility should wear personal protective equipment that includes masks, gowns and clothes when they are in contact with body fluids. You should wash your hands before and after putting on gloves.

People who work with children or who are in other industries are encouraged to avoid physical contact with sick people and to practice good hand washing technique. Follow the guidelines of your employer.

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 are less certain and vary 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 come into contact with someone with measles. If you or your child has measles, and seem to be getting worse and not better, call your provider.

Additional Common Questions

Where did measles come from?

It’s believed that the rinderpest virus in cattle jumped to humans in the time around 600 B.C. This virus became the measles virus.

What should pregnant people do if they’re exposed to measles?

If you’re pregnant and you think you’ve been exposed to measles, you should contact your healthcare provider.

A note from Cleveland Clinic

If you’re exposed to measles, you should contact your healthcare provider. While most cases of measles may be uncomfortable, you can treat the symptoms. However, other cases of measles can result in serious complications, including death. Measles can be avoided by getting the safe vaccines available for adults and children.

Medically Reviewed

Last reviewed by a Cleveland Clinic medical professional on 10/25/2021.

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