Measles is a highly infectious viral illness that can be very unpleasant and can sometimes lead to serious complications. However, it's now uncommon in the UK because of the effectiveness of the MMR vaccination.

The initial symptoms of measles develop around 10 days after you are infected. These can include:

  • cold-like symptoms
  • red eyes and sensitivity to light
  • a high temperature (fever)
  • greyish white spots in the mouth and throat

After a few days, a red-brown spotty rash will appear. This usually starts behind the ears and then spreads around the head and neck before spreading to the rest of the body.

Read more about the symptoms of measles.

When to see your GP

You should contact your GP as soon as possible if you suspect that you or your child may have measles.

It's best to phone before your visit as your GP surgery may need to make arrangements to reduce the risk of spreading the infection to others.

Your GP will usually be able to diagnose measles from the combination of symptoms, although a sample of your saliva may be tested to confirm the diagnosis.

How measles is 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 measles virus can survive on surfaces for a few hours.

When inside your body, the virus multiplies in the back of your throat and lungs before spreading throughout your body.

People with measles are infectious from when the first symptoms develop until about four days after the rash first appears. Therefore, school or work should be avoided for at least four days from when the rash first appeared to limit the spread of infection.

Who is affected

Anyone can get measles if they haven't been vaccinated or they haven't had it before, although it's most common in children between one and four years old.

Once you have had measles, it is very rare to develop the infection again in the future because your body builds up immunity (resistance) to the virus.

How to prevent measles

The most effective way of preventing measles is to have the measles, mumps and rubella (MMR) vaccine.

The first MMR vaccination is routinely given when your child is around 13 months old and a second is given before your child starts school.

Adults and 6-13 month old children can also have the MMR vaccine if they are at risk of catching measles. For example, vaccination may be recommended if there is an outbreak of measles in your local area, or if you have been in close contact with someone who has measles.

Read more about preventing measles.

Treating measles

There's no specific treatment for measles, but your immune system should fight off the infection within 7-10 days.

There are several things you can do to help make your recovery more comfortable, including:

  • closing the curtains to help reduce light sensitivity
  • using damp cotton wool to clean the eyes
  • 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

In severe cases of measles, especially if there are complications, you may need to be admitted to hospital for treatment.

Read more about treating measles.

Complications of measles

Measles can lead to very serious complications that can sometimes be fatal. These include bacterial infection in the lungs (pneumonia) and the brain (encephalitis).

People most at risk of developing serious complications include babies younger than 12 months, children in poor health, teenagers and adults.

It's estimated that around one in every 5,000 people with measles will die as a result of a serious complication.

Read more about the complications of measles.

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