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Measles (Rubeola)

Page last updated 02/08/2024.

What is Measles?

Measles is a highly contagious virus that infects the respiratory tract and then spreads throughout the body.

How is Measles Transmitted (Spread)?

Measles is one of the most contagious diseases. Measles is so contagious that if one person has it, up to 90% of the people close to that person who are not immune will also become infected.

Measles fact
  • It is spread airborne by person-to-person transmission when an infected person coughs or sneezes. If other people breathe the contaminated air or touch the infected surface, then touch their eyes, nose, or mouth, they can get infected. The virus can live for up to 2 hours in an airspace after the infected person leaves the area.
  • Infected people can spread the virus to others from 4 days before through 4 days after the rash appears.
  • Animals do not get or spread measles.

What Are the Symptoms of Measles?

Measles symptoms appear 7 to 14 days after contact with the virus.

First symptoms include:

  • High fever (may spike to more than 104˚F),
  • Cough,
  • Runny nose, and
  • Red, watery eyes (conjunctivitis).
Koplik spots

Two to three days after symptoms begin, tiny white spots may appear inside the mouth (Koplik spots).

Measles rash

Three to five days after symptoms begin, a rash appears. It begins as flat red spots that appear on the face and spread down towards the neck, trunk, arms, legs, and feet.

  • Small, raised bumps may appear on top of the flat red spots.
  • The spots may become joined together as the rash spreads throughout the body.
  • When the rash appears, a person’s fever may spike to more than 104˚F.

Groups at risk of measles complications include:

  • Children younger than 5 years of age
  • Adults older than 20 years of age
  • Pregnant women
  • People with compromised immune systems

Common complications include ear infections and diarrhea, but severe complications include pneumonia and encephalitis. With complications, people may need to be hospitalized and could include death.

How Is Measles Diagnosed?

A doctor can determine if you have measles by discussing your symptoms and ordering a throat or nasal swab and a blood test that can tell whether or not you have been infected with measles.

How Is Measles Treated?

There is no cure for measles. Treatment is focused on relieving symptoms. Recommendations are rest, adequate nutrition, and fluids. Some people with severe symptoms will need medical care in a hospital.  People with measles should receive two doses of vitamin A supplements, given 24 hours apart to help restore levels.

How Can Measles Be Prevented?

The best way to prevent measles is through the measles vaccine, typically combined with vaccines for mumps, rubella, and/or varicella. Measles infection after exposure to the virus can be prevented with measles vaccination (post-exposure prophylaxis).

  • The measles vaccine is 2 doses given at least 28 days apart.
  • All children and adolescents ages 12 months and older who have not previously received the vaccine should be vaccinated.
  • Adults who were not vaccinated previously and want to be protected against measles can also get the vaccine.

Where Can I Get The Measles Vaccine?

  • Contact your healthcare provider. If you do not have a healthcare provider, contact 2-1-1.
  • Immunization services are available throughout San Diego County at our six Public Health Center Locations. Please visit our Immunization Clinic Locations for clinic hours of operation. We recommend calling the site you plan to visit to confirm current hours and immunization availability. 

Measles and International Travel

Measles cases in the United States originate from unvaccinated international travelers. 

Visit the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) Website Plan for Travel. If you plan to travel internationally, make sure you and your loved ones are protected against measles before departure, no matter where you are going. 

What Should I Do if I Think I Have Been Exposed to Measles?

  • Call your healthcare provider as soon as possible and let them know you have been exposed to someone with measles. A healthcare provider can determine if you are immune based on your vaccination record, age, or laboratory evidence, and/or make special arrangements to evaluate you, if needed.
  • If you do not have a healthcare provider, contact 2-1-1.

Resources

Information for Healthcare Professionals