This is a common viral infection which presents as a reddish-brown rash that develops over the entire body and is highly contagious. Measles is one of several childhood conditions along with chickenpox and German measles (rubella) which can be prevented with the MMR (measles mumps rubella) vaccine.
The good news with measles is that once you have experienced this condition you then have lifelong immunity to it. This means you are unlikely to develop another bout of this in adulthood.
The vast majority of people have suffered from measles in their childhood which makes this one of the most common infectious diseases.
Causes of measles
Measles occurs when a child inhales infected droplets or air or touch a surface which these droplets have landed on. They contain the Morbillivirus – a virus which causes a respiratory infection and rash in children under the age of 5.
You only need to be near to someone who has coughed or sneezed these infected droplets into the air to contract this infection. Children are particularly prone as their immune systems are underdeveloped compared to adults: plus they are often in close proximity to each other, for example playing at a nursery where coughs, colds and other infections are very common.
Once the virus has invaded your body it multiplies, spreading through your entire respiratory system and skin. This occurs within hours.
Symptoms of measles
The first symptoms appear 10 days following initial exposure to the virus. These include:
- Watery eyes
- Runny nose
- Sore throat
- Dry cough
- Mild temperature although this may become severe, e.g. 105F.
- Sore eyes which are sensitive to light
- Small, grey-white spots develop in the mouth and throat
- Aches and pains
- Extreme tiredness
- Lack of appetite
Your child will be cranky and miserable as a result and you may feel the same as well, irrespective of whether you are the patient. The skin rash develops 4 days after these symptoms and starts with the ears before spreading to the head, face, legs and then the rest of the body.
This rash starts off with small spots which increase in size and may group together in patches.
It is easy to mistake a measles rash for another similar condition. But, if this skin condition is accompanied by other symptoms such as the respiratory infection (runny nose, coughing and sneezing) then it is a confirmation of measles.
It is important that you inform your GP if you or your child has measles as this is required by law. All notifiable diseases such as this have to be recorded and the information passed to your local health authority. The reason for this simple: it enables them to detect the source of the infection and prevent it from spreading any further.
Another reason for visiting your GP is that measles can turn nasty. It is a relatively mild condition but there is the risk of complications such as pneumonia which occurs in a small percentage of cases. There have even been a few fatalities from measles although this is very rare.
Your GP will confirm a diagnosis via a physical examination and discussion of your symptoms. He or she may perform a blood test as well. Your GP will notify the local health authority and in the case of a child, their nursery or school as well.
Treatment for measles
This is a viral infection which means it cannot be treated with antibiotics. Plus it most cases it clears up without the need for medication.
Once the skin rash has appeared it is a case of resting and giving your body the chance to fight off the symptoms. You can treat the symptoms but if there are no problems then this infection will disappear after 10 days.
As an adult, get plenty of rest, keep your fluids going and apply calamine lotion to the skin rash.
Children can be given child friendly painkillers such as ibuprofen: but do NOT give any child under the age of 16 aspirin as there is a serious risk of complications if you do. Draw the curtains in the bedroom and lounge to protect your child’s sore eyes and use a damp cotton wool ball to clean around them.
Ensure that your child drinks as much fluid as possible to prevent dehydration.
If you are the parent of a child with measles then wait for at least 5 days following the appearance of the skin rash before allowing him/her to return to school. Ask your GP for advice.
The only time antibiotics would be prescribed is if your child developed a secondary infection which is bacterial in nature. Antibiotics are effective at treating bacterial infections but do not work with viral infections.
Complications of measles
Measles are worse in adults who are also at greater risk of complications. But children with a poorly functioning immune system or a bad diet are also at risk. Babies and toddlers are also at increased risk of complications.
These complications include:
- Conjunctivitis (eye infection)
- Inner ear infection
These are the most likely complications. Other less common complications include meningitis, pneumonia, encephalitis (swelling of the brain), hepatitis and bronchitis.
There are a few extremely rare complications which cause heart and nervous system disorders and serious eye infections. But these are rare.