Posted August 20, 2022 by Anusha ‐ 4 min read

Measles is a childhood infection caused by a virus. Once quite common, measles can now almost always be prevented with a vaccine. Also called rubeola, measles spreads easily and can be serious and even fatal for small children.


Measles signs and symptoms appear around 10 to 14 days after exposure to the virus. Signs and symptoms of measles typically include:

  • Fever

  • Dry cough

  • Runny nose

  • Sore throat

  • Inflamed eyes (conjunctivitis)

  • Tiny white spots with bluish-white centers on a red background found inside the mouth on the inner lining of the cheek — also called Koplik’s spots A skin rash made up of large, flat blotches that often flow into one another

The infection occurs in stages over 2 to 3 weeks.

  • Infection and incubation: For the first 10 to 14 days after infection, the measles virus spreads in the body. There are no signs or symptoms of measles during this time.

  • Nonspecific signs and symptoms: Measles typically begins with a mild to moderate fever, often with a persistent cough, a runny nose, inflamed eyes (conjunctivitis) and a sore throat. This relatively mild illness may last 2 to 3 days.

  • Acute illness and rash: The rash is made up of small red spots, some of which are slightly raised. Spots and bumps in tight clusters give the skin a splotchy red appearance. The face breaks out first.

Over the next few days, the rash spreads down the arms, chest and back, then over the thighs, lower legs and feet. At the same time, the fever rises sharply, often as high as 104 to 105.8 F (40 to 41 C).

  • Recovery: The measles rash may last about seven days. The rash gradually fades first from the face and last from the thighs and feet. As other symptoms of the illness go away, the cough and darkening or peeling of the skin where the rash was may stay for about 10 days.


  • Measles is a highly contagious illness. This means it’s very easily spread to others. Measles is caused by a virus found in the nose and throat of an infected child or adult.

  • When someone with measles coughs, sneezes or talks, infectious droplets spray into the air, where other people can breathe them in. The infectious droplets can hang in the air for about an hour.

  • The infectious droplets may also land on a surface, where they can live and spread for several hours.

  • You can get the measles virus by putting your fingers in your mouth or nose or rubbing your eyes after touching the infected surface.

  • Measles is highly contagious from about four days before to four days after the rash appears.

  • About 90% of people who haven’t had measles or been vaccinated against measles will become infected when exposed to someone with the measles virus.

Risk factors

Risk factors for measles include:

  • Being unvaccinated - If you haven’t had the measles vaccine, you’re much more likely to get measles.

  • Traveling internationally - If you travel to countries where measles is more common, you’re at higher risk of catching measles.

  • Having a vitamin A deficiency - If you don’t have enough vitamin A in your diet, you’re more likely to have more-severe symptoms and complications of measles.


Complications of measles may include:

  • Diarrhea and vomiting - Diarrhea and vomiting can result in losing too much water from the body (dehydration).

  • Ear infection - One of the most common complications of measles is a bacterial ear infection.

  • Bronchitis, laryngitis or croup - Measles may lead to irritation and swelling (inflammation) of the airways (croup). It can also lead to inflammation of the inner walls that line the main air passageways of the lungs (bronchitis). Measles can also cause inflammation of the voice box (laryngitis).

  • Pneumonia - Measles can commonly cause an infection in the lungs (pneumonia). People with weakened immune systems can develop an especially dangerous type of pneumonia that sometimes can lead to death.

  • Encephalitis - About 1 in 1,000 people with measles can develop a complication called encephalitis. Encephalitis is irritation and swelling (inflammation) of the brain. The condition can be especially dangerous for people with weakened immune systems.

Measles vaccine in adults

You may need the measles vaccine if you’re an adult who does not have proof of immunity and:

  • Has an increased risk of measles, such as attending college, traveling internationally outside the U.S. or working in a hospital environment.
  • Was born in 1957 or later - If you’ve already had measles, your body has built up its immune system to fight the infection, and you can’t get measles again. Most people born or living in the U.S. before 1957 are immune to measles, simply because they’ve already had it.
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