What is measles?
Measles, also known as rubeola, is a viral infection that affects the respiratory system, meaning that it inhabits the throat and nose of the infected person. It results in a rash all over the body as well as symptoms similar to those of the flu. These include a runny nose (congestion), a fever and a hacking cough (i.e. a short, dry, frequent cough). It is very easily transmitted through mucus of an infected person and can sometimes be fatal, particularly for children under the age of 5.
The virus is spread through sneezing, coughing and mucus contaminating surfaces, on which it can live for up to several hours once the mucus particles have settled.
Should you feel as though you may be at risk or have contracted measles, seek medical advice immediately so as to get professional diagnosis and treatment. It is important to note that the disease can easily be vaccinated against through the administration of the MMR vaccine.
If you have been in contact with an infected person and you have never been vaccinated, you will need to see your doctor for a vaccine within 72 hours of exposure. It is also possible to combat infection once exposed by taking a dose of immunoglobin (an immune system booster) within six days of exposure, this may prevent or lessen the symptoms of infection.
In the following article, we will take an in-depth look into the world of measles. Covering everything from the causes, symptoms and more. Please note that this article is intended to be used only as a guideline and not as a professional opinion. It is always best to consult with a doctor or health care professional for that.
How did I get measles?
Measles is a highly contagious condition and is spread through being exposed to an infected person coughing or sneezing near you. As previously stated, the virus is transported via the mucus of an infected person. The virus can last for two hours in the airspace where an infected person may have sneezed or coughed. When other people in the infected space breathe in the airborne mucus or even touch the contaminated surface and then rub their eyes, or touch their mouths or noses, they are at risk of becoming infected.
This virus is so highly contagious that if a single person is infected, 90% of those coming into contact with the infected person will also contract the virus if they do not have immunity. Measles is only spread through humans and not via animals or other living things.
What are the symptoms?
Symptoms of this disease tend to appear two weeks after infection. The following symptoms are common in measles:
- Body rash
- Fever up to 40℃ (104℉)
- Reacting sensitively to light
- Red eyes
- Muscles pains and aches
- Runny nose (congestion)
- Little white spots with blue-white centres and a red background inside the mouth (known as *Koplik’s spots)
- Painful and sore throat
* Kolpik’s spots commonly form two to three days before the measles rash. They are a sign that you are undoubtedly going to get the above symptoms associated with measles.
The measles rash
A body rash is the most common symptom of measles and can last up to seven days. It generally appears within a week from exposure. The bumps are normally red and itchy. You are most at risk of infecting other people four days after the rash has developed.
Where does the measles rash start?
The reddish-brown or red rash will usually start as flat spots on the forehead and then spread to the rest of the face, neck, torso and arms, moving down to the feet and legs. Your fever and rash will normally disappear gradually within a few days but can last up to seven. You may be uncomfortable and itchy during this time. It is best not the scratch the rash as this may leave scars where the bumps were. Speak to your doctor about a cream or ointment to help soothe the itching should it become a nuisance.
What are the complications and risks of measles?
Am I at risk for measles?
Children who have not been vaccinated are the highest risk for contracting measles. Studies have also shown that there is a link with children who have a vitamin A deficiency in their diet may have a higher risk of infection. Vitamin A is naturally found in fruits, vegetables and fish. It boosts the immune system, helping your body to combat potential infections. Children with this deficiency are commonly found in third world countries where fresh produce is a luxury.
Children under the age of five and adults over the age of 20 or more susceptible to the virus.
Measles complications can include:
- Severe ear infection, this only occurs in one in 10 children.
- Diarrhoea, however, less than one in 10 people with measles experience diarrhoea.
- Bronchitis, laryngitis or croup due to an inflammation of the voice box, known as your larynx or an inflammation of the lining of the air passageways of your lungs, known as your bronchial tubes.
- Pneumonia is often a common complication of measles. It can sometimes be fatal and is often contracted by those with a weakened immune system. It is known as a secondary bacterial infection contracted as a result of measles. This can be treated with antibiotics.
- About one in 1000 people infected with measles may develop encephalitis. This is an inflammation of the brain which may cause vomiting and convulsions, and in very rare cases, death. It can follow closely after measles and can even occur months after the measles infection has subsided.
- Measles may cause a depletion in platelets – these are the blood cells that are very important for blood clotting. This is referred to as low platelet count or rather, thrombocytopenia.
- If you contract measles while pregnant, it may result in pregnancy loss, stillbirth, low birth weight or preterm labour.
How is measles diagnosed?
Should you feel as though you may have been infected or are showing signs of measles, it is best to immediately seek the opinion of a medical professional.
Measles is typically diagnosed when your doctor examines your skin rash, checks for signs of Koplik’s spots in your mouth (little white spots on your cheeks), and also checks for a hacking cough, sore throat and fever. If your symptoms are unable to give a clear diagnosis, your doctor may also conduct a blood test (obtain a small blood sample to send to the lab for testing) in order to confirm the diagnosis.
The diagnosis can also be confirmed by testing a throat swab (viral culture) or urine test, known as a PCR (Polymerase Chain Reaction). Measles is a notifiable disease, therefore, it is preferred if the diagnosis is confirmed with testing.
Sometimes your rash may be the result of something else and can be difficult to diagnose, regardless, you should always seek a diagnosis from your doctor.
How do you treat measles?
There is no specific treatment for measles, however, there are certain precautions and measures that are able to be taken by those who are more vulnerable (weak immune system) or have had exposure to the virus:
- People who have not been vaccinated, as well as children, can be vaccinated within the first 72 hours after exposure. If the infection still develops, it often results in much milder symptoms than if the patient had not been vaccinated. This is known as post-exposure vaccination.
- Infants, pregnant women and those with a weak immune system, who have been exposed to measles, may be able to get an injection known as immune serum globulin, which contains antibodies (proteins). This is administered within six days after initial exposure and may prevent measles being contracted or lessen the symptoms.
If the measles virus has been contracted, there are a variety of medications that your doctor may prescribe, these include:
- Antibiotics are used if a secondary bacterial infection has been contracted after being infected with measles, such as ear infection or pneumonia. Measles, being a virus, cannot be treated by antibiotics as these will have no effect on the infection.
- As discussed earlier, people with a vitamin A deficiency may be at higher risk for contracting measles or their symptoms may be worsened. Your doctor may prescribe a dose of 200,000 UI (international units) taken over two days.
- Over-the-counter fever reducers are also available, such as ibuprofen and acetaminophen. However, speak to your pharmacist about these as caution must be taken when giving aspirin to your child or teenager who has a viral infection.
There are also a number of home-remedy solutions. These should only be carried out once your doctor has diagnosed you or your child with measles, and it is important to keep in touch with your doctor regarding your symptoms and progress. These include:
- Getting plenty of rest and avoiding physical activities that may exhaust you.
- Staying hydrated and drinking plenty of fluids to replace fluids lost through sweating and fever. These include water and fruit juice - you should be drinking six to eight glasses of water a day.
- Using a humidifier in your room to help you to breathe easily and soothe your sore throat and cough.
- Trying to rest your eyes and avoid bright light as it may be bothersome. Avoid watching too much television and wear sunglasses when exposed to sunlight.
The measles vaccine
The measles, mumps and rubella (MMR) vaccine should be given to all children, as it can potentially protect them from three serious viruses, mumps being one of the more commonly known. The vaccine is two-part, the first dose (injection) takes place between 12 and 15 months of age in children and the second between the ages of four and six. Adults can also have the vaccine in at least one dose with a follow-up booster as required.
Speak to your doctor should you be at risk or if you are born during or after 1957. If you are unsure of whether you have been vaccinated and do not have written documentation of your vaccination, you should consult with your doctor and possibly get vaccinated.
Your doctor is also able to test your blood for immunity to the virus, this is known as a measles titer blood test, which shows your level of immunity to the virus and whether or not you require a vaccination but there is also no harm in getting vaccinated if you are already immune. A titer is a lab test to see what the measurement of antibodies are in the blood, it may be used to show immunity to a certain disease. The blood test is taken and if the result is positive, the person is immune.
Some parents may feel that getting their children vaccinated may lead to autism, but there is no accurate scientific research to prove this. The vaccine ingredient thimerosal, which is a preservative used in some MMR vaccines was once thought to be the cause of autism. However, since such claims, the findings have been considered as unjustified and fraudulent.
Due to an increase in vaccinations over the past few decades, the overall cases of measles worldwide have dropped, however, due to the contagiousness of the virus, it is still vital to get vaccinated in order to ensure that the cases of infections do not rise again and continue to drop.
That said, due to highly publicised claims linking the measles vaccine to autism in recent years, some parents have declined to vaccinate their children and as such, the measles infection rate in the U.S has increased. Sadly, due to the lower incidences of measles cases, many parents fail to remember the serious consequences that the virus can have, especially for pregnant women and children. Therefore, it is best to get you and your child vaccinated so as to avoid infection and spread of the virus.
Some parents do not vaccinate their children in the fear that the vaccine may have other adverse side effects, although most children and adults who are vaccinated do not experience any side effects. The most common side effect is a swelling or redness at the place of the injection. However, some more uncommon side effects may include:
- One in five children contract a fever
- A rash may develop in one in 20 children or adults
- Swelling of the glands happens to about one in seven people
- Joint pain may occur in one in 100 people, this is more common for women
- Low platelet count which results in severe bleeding, this only happens to one in 30 000 people
- Encephalitis occurs in one in one million people
It is important to remember that the odds of experiencing any side effects are minimal, but if left unvaccinated, it is estimated that 90% of people will be exposed to the measles virus at some point in their life.
You may have a few more questions …
Can measles kill you?
Measles itself does not kill you, secondary contracted infections such as pneumonia, or in rare cases, encephalitis, may result in more serious complications such as death. It is important to note that these are very uncommon complications and can often be avoided upon early detection, vaccination and consultation with your doctor.
What is the outlook on measles?
Measles does not have a high death rate in healthy adults and children and most people who become infected with the virus have a full recovery. The risk of complications and secondary contracted infections are higher for those with a weakened immune system.
It is not possible to get measles twice, once you have had the disease, you will not get it again and you are immune to it for your whole life.
How can I prevent measles?
It is always best to ensure that you and your child have been vaccinated with the MMR vaccine, this is a three-in-one vaccine that will protect you against measles, mumps and rubella (German measles). Children can receive it at 12 months and even sooner if they are travelling internationally, receiving their second dose between four and six years old.
As an unvaccinated adult, or if you are unsure if you were ever vaccinated, you may also request the vaccine from your doctor.
It is best to isolate yourself should you be infected as the disease is highly contagious. Should a family member or friend become infected, avoid all physical contact with them. It is also best to avoid being in the same room as them as their mucus spread through breathing, coughing and sneezing may infect you.
Therefore, the most effective prevention methods are vaccination and isolation.