Measles is a respiratory infection caused by a highly contagious virus. It occurs most often in the late winter and spring. Also known as rubeola, measles has more or less been eradicated in the United States, where vaccination has been available since the 1960s. Outside of the US, there are still approximately 20,000,000 reported cases of measles every year, particularly in undeveloped countries.
Measles: Signs and Symptoms
Measles is usually caused by coming into contact with someone who is infected with the virus. It is extremely contagious. Symptoms appear about 10-12 days after exposure, and common early symptoms are similar to the flu: fever, dry cough, runny nose, inflamed eyes (also called conjunctivitis or pink eye), sensitivity to light and sore throat.
Another measles symptom is small spots inside the mouth (on the inner lining of the cheek) with blue-white centers, called Koplik’s spots. Several days later, the most distinctive symptom of measles develops: a red, blotchy, itchy, full-body rash that usually starts on the forehead and spreads downward. If there are no complications, the rash and other symptoms begin to fade in about a week. Most childhood rashes are not measles, but if you think your child has measles, call your health care provider.
How long do Measles Last? How can I treat them?
ince measles is caused by a virus, there is no medical “cure”; the virus must run its course, which usually takes about 10-14 days. However, measles symptoms can be treated, primarily through rest and fluid intake. Over-the-counter, non-aspirin medications can help relieve fever. (But don’t ever give aspirin to children with a viral illness, as aspirin use in these cases has been linked to Reye’s Syndrome, a rare and potentially fatal ailment.)
In most cases, children recover smoothly from measles, but potential complications include ear infection, pneumonia, diarrhea and/or vomiting, bronchitis, and, rarely, encephalitis. A child with measles shouldn’t be around anyone who has not been vaccinated.
Measles Prevention: Vaccinations
The most effective way to prevent measles is for children to be vaccinated. Infants of vaccinated mothers are generally protected for the first six months of life. Most children in the United States and other developed countries are immunized at about one year old with the measles-mumps-rubella (MMR) vaccination; a second “booster” immunization is given between ages 4-6. The vaccination can cause mild side effects in some people – fever and a measles-like rash – but these aren’t contagious and shouldn’t last more than a few days. Children with untreated tuberculosis, leukemia or other cancers or with suppressed immune systems shouldn’t be vaccinated, nor should children who are allergic to gelatin or the antibiotic neomycin. Check with your child’s doctor for the most current immunization information and schedules.
Measles Cases – On the Rise?
In the United States, children have been vaccinated against measles since the 1960s, and the disease has been considered virtually eliminated as of the year 2000. However, since then, several dozen cases of measles have been reported annually in the US, and the numbers are rising: over 100 cases were reported in the first six months of 2008.
These were mostly non-immunized, already infected people who came to the US from elsewhere. If American families are traveling abroad, children should be immunized before leaving the country, to ensure that they don’t catch measles in countries where the disease still exists. In recent years, some parents in the US and elsewhere have chosen not to have their children immunized, due to fears that the vaccine is somehow related to the onset of autism and other illnesses. In February 2009, a US legal ruling declared that there is no scientific link between vaccinations and autism; nevertheless, the controversy continues.