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Measles: Cause, Symptoms and Treatment

Measles, also known as rubeola, is a viral infection of your respiratory system. Measles and German measles (known as rubella) are different diseases caused by different viruses. Although mainly a disease of children, measles can affect all age groups.

Rubella, also known as German measles or three-day measles, is an infection caused by a virus different from rubeola (measles).

Measles is a highly contagious viral illness of the respiratory system that spreads through airborne droplets when an infected person coughs or sneezes. Occasionally, the virus spreads through the air and not by droplets.


About 10-14 days after you are infected with measles, you will begin to show symptoms. This is called the incubation period.

The early phase then begins with these symptoms:
  • Fever
  • A rundown feeling
  • Cough
  • Red eyes (conjunctivitis)
  • Runny nose
The red measles rash develops from 2-4 days later.
  • The rash usually starts on your head. Over the next 3 days, the rash spreads to cover your entire body.
  • The rash is initially small red bumps that may blend into each other as more appear.
  • Often you may develop grayish spots, called Koplik spots, on the inside of your mouth just before the rash appears.
  • The rash is usually not itchy.

Complications can include diarrhea, pneumonia, brain infection, and even death, although these are seen more commonly in malnourished or immunodeficient people. Measles has historically been a devastating disease, but WHO reported in 2006 that measles mortality rates dropped from 871,000 to 454,000 between 1999 and 2004, thanks to a global immunization drive.

Until 1963, when the first measles vaccine was used in the United States, almost everyone got the measles by age 20. There has been a 99 percent reduction in measles since then, but outbreaks have occurred when the disease is brought over from other countries or when children don't get the vaccine or all the required doses. Most children today receive the measles vaccine as part of the MMR vaccination, which protects against measles, mumps, and rubella (German measles).


Although there is no cure for measles, you can take steps at home to make the course of the disease more tolerable. These include the following:

  • Rest in bed, if that makes you or your child more comfortable.
  • For fever higher than 100.5°F, provide sponge baths with lukewarm water to the face and upper body.
  • Drink plenty of fluids to help avoid dehydration.
  • Over-the-counter cough medicine (for approved ages) can help when given as directed.
  • A humidifier or vaporizer may ease the cough.
  • Pain relievers and fever reducers such as acetaminophen (Children’s Silapap, Liquiprin, Tylenol, Junior Strength Panadol) and ibuprofen (Children’s Advil, Children’s Motrin, Ibuprin, Pediaprofen) can help with symptoms. Remember never to give aspirin to children or teenagers because it may cause a disease known as Reye syndrome.
  • Diphenhydramine (Benadryl) or calamine lotion may help to ease the itch of the rash.
  • Trim fingernails or put on gloves if you are concerned about your child scratching the rash excessively.

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