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Measles is an infection caused by a virus, which causes an illness displaying a characteristic skin rash known as an exanthem. Measles is also sometimes called rubeola, 5-day measles, or hard measles.


Measles infections appear all over the world. Prior to the current effective immunization program, large-scale measles outbreaks occurred on a two to three-year cycle, usually in the winter and spring. Smaller outbreaks occurred during the off-years. Babies up to about eight months of age are usually protected from contracting measles, due to immune cells they receive from their mothers in the uterus. Once someone has had measles infection, he or she can never get it again.

Causes and symptoms

Measles is caused by a type of virus called a paramyxovirus. It is an extremely contagious infection, spread through the tiny droplets that may spray into the air when an individual carrying the virus sneezes or coughs. About 85% of those people exposed to the virus will become infected with it. About 95% of those people infected with the virus will develop the illness called measles. Once someone is infected with the virus, it takes about 7-18 days before he or she actually becomes ill. The most contagious time period is the three to five days before symptoms begin through about four days after the characteristic measles rash has begun to appear.
The first signs of measles infection are fever, extremely runny nose, red, runny eyes, and a cough. A few days later, a rash appears in the mouth, particularly on the mucous membrane which lines the cheeks. This rash consists of tiny white dots (like grains of salt or sand) on a reddish bump. These are called Koplik's spots, and are unique to measles infection. The throat becomes red, swollen, and sore.
A couple of days after the appearance of the Koplik's spots, the measles rash begins. It appears in a characteristic progression, from the head, face, and neck, to the trunk, then abdomen, and next out along the arms and legs. The rash starts out as flat, red patches, but eventually develops some bumps. The rash may be somewhat itchy. When the rash begins to appear, the fever usually climbs higher, sometimes reaching as high as 105°F (40.5°C). There may be nausea, vomiting, diarrhea, and multiple swollen lymph nodes. The cough is usually more problematic at this point, and the patient feels awful. The rash usually lasts about five days. As it fades, it turns a brownish color, and eventually the affected skin becomes dry and flaky.
Many patients (about 5-15%) develop other complications. Bacterial infections, such as ear infections, sinus infections, and pneumonia are common, especially in children. Other viral infections may also strike the patient, including croup, bronchitis, laryngitis, or viral pneumonia. Inflammation of the liver, appendix, intestine, or lymph nodes within the abdomen may cause other complications. Rarely, inflammations of the heart or kidneys, a drop in platelet count (causing episodes of difficult-to-control bleeding), or reactivation of an old tuberculosis infection can occur.
An extremely serious complication of measles infection is swelling of the brain. Called encephalitis, this can occur up to several weeks after the basic measles symptoms have resolved. About one out of every thousand patients develops this complication, and about 10-15% of these patients die. Symptoms include fever, headache, sleepiness, seizures, and coma. Long-term problems following recovery from measles encephalitis may include seizures and mental retardation.
A very rare complication of measles can occur up to 10 years following the initial infection. Called subacute sclerosing panencephalitis, this is a slowly progressing, smoldering swelling and destruction of the entire brain. It is most common among people who had measles infection prior to the age of two years. Symptoms include changes in personality, decreased intelligence with accompanying school problems, decreased coordination, involuntary jerks and movements of the body. The disease progresses so that the individual becomes increasingly dependent, ultimately becoming bedridden and unaware of his or her surroundings. Blindness may develop, and the temperature may spike (rise rapidly) and fall unpredictably as the brain structures responsible for temperature regulation are affected. Death is inevitable.
Measles during pregnancy is a serious disease, leading to increased risk of a miscarriage or stillbirth. In addition, the mother's illness may progress to pneumonia.


Measles infection is almost always diagnosed based on its characteristic symptoms, including Koplik's spots, and a rash which spreads from central body structures out towards the arms and legs. If there is any doubt as to the diagnosis, then a specimen of body fluids (mucus, urine) can be collected and combined with fluorescent-tagged measles virus antibodies. Antibodies are produced by the body's immune cells that can recognize and bind to markers (antigens) on the outside of specific organisms, in this case the measles virus. Once the fluorescent antibodies have attached themselves to the measles antigens in the specimen, the specimen can be viewed under a special microscope to verify the presence of measles virus.


There are no treatments available to stop measles infection. Treatment is primarily aimed at helping the patient to be as comfortable as possible, and watching carefully so that antibiotics can be started promptly if a bacterial infection develops. Fever and discomfort can be treated with acetaminophen. Children with measles should never be given aspirin, as this has caused the fatal disease Reye's syndrome in the past. A cool-mist vaporizer may help decrease the cough. Patients should be given a lot of liquids to drink, in order to avoid dehydration from the fever.
Some studies have shown that children with measles encephalitis benefit from relatively large doses of vitamin A.

Alternative treatment

Botanical immune enhancement (with echinacea, for example) can assist the body in working through this viral infection. Homeopathic support also can be effective throughout the course of the illness. Some specific alternative treatments to soothe patients with measles include the Chinese herbs bupleurum (Bupleurum chinense) and peppermint (Mentha piperita), as well as a preparation made from empty cicada (Cryptotympana atrata) shells. The itchiness of the rash can be relieved with witch hazel (Hamamelis virginiana), chickweed (Stellaria media), or oatmeal baths. The eyes can be soothed with an eyewash made from the herb eyebright (Euphrasia officinalis). Practitioners of ayurvedic medicine recommend ginger or clove tea.


The prognosis for an otherwise healthy, well-nourished child who contracts measles is usually quite good. In developing countries, however, death rates may reach 15-25%. Adolescents and adults usually have a more difficult course. Women who contract the disease while pregnant may give birth to a baby with hearing impairment. Although only 1 in 1,000 patients with measles will develop encephalitis, 10-15% of those who do will die, and about another 25% will be left with permanent brain damage.


Measles is a highly preventable infection. A very effective vaccine exists, made of live measles viruses which have been treated so that they cannot cause actual infection. The important markers on the viruses are intact, however, which causes an individual's immune system to react. Immune cells called antibodies are produced, which in the event of a future infection with measles virus will quickly recognize the organism, and kill it off. Measles vaccines are usually given at about 15 months of age; because prior to that age, the baby's immune system is not mature enough to initiate a reaction strong enough to insure long-term protection from the virus. A repeat injection should be given at about 10 or 11 years of age. Outbreaks on college campuses have occurred among unimmunized or incorrectly immunized students.
Measles vaccine should not be given to a pregnant woman, however, in spite of the seriousness of gestational measles. The reason for not giving this particular vaccine during pregnancy is the risk of transmitting measles to the unborn child.
Surprisingly, new cases of measles began being reported in some countries—including Great Britain—in 2001 because of parents' fears about vaccine safety. The combined vaccine for measles, mumps, and rubella (MMR) was claimed to cause autism or bowel disorders in some children. However, the World Health Organization (WHO) says there is no scientific merit to these claims. The United Nations expressed concern that unwarranted fear of the vaccine would begin spreading the disease in developing countries, and ultimately in developed countries as well. Parents in Britain began demanding the measles vaccine as a separate dose and scientists were exploring that option as an alternative to the combined MMR vaccine. Unfortunately, several children died during an outbreak of measles in Dublin because they had not received the vaccine. Child mortality due to measles is considered largely preventable, and making the MMR vaccine widely available in developing countries is part of WHO's strategy to reduce child mortality by two-thirds by the year 2015.

Key terms

Antibodies — Cells made by the immune system which have the ability to recognize foreign invaders (bacteria, viruses), and thus stimulate the immune system to kill them.
Antigens — Markers on the outside of such organisms as bacteria and viruses, which allow antibodies to recognize foreign invaders.
Encephalitis — Swelling, inflammation of the brain.
Exanthem (plural, exanthems or exanthemata) — A skin eruption regarded as a characteristic sign of such diseases as measles, German measles, and scarlet fever.
Koplik's spots — Tiny spots occurring inside the mouth, especially on the inside of the cheek. These spots consist of minuscule white dots (like grains of salt or sand) set onto a reddened bump. Unique to measles.



Beers, Mark H., MD, and Robert Berkow, MD, editors. "Viral Infections: Measles." Section 19, Chapter 265. In The Merck Manual of Diagnosis and Therapy. Whitehouse Station, NJ: Merck Research Laboratories, 2004.


Chiba, M. E., M. Saito, N. Suzuki, et al. "Measles Infection in Pregnancy." Journal of Infection 47 (July 2003): 40-44.
Jones, G., R. W. Steketee, R. E. Black, et al. "How Many Child Deaths Can We Prevent This Year?" Lancet 362 (July 5, 2003): 65-71.
McBrien, J., J. Murphy, D. Gill, et al. "Measles Outbreak in Dublin, 2000." Pediatric Infectious Disease Journal 22 (July 2003): 580-584.
"Measles—United States, 2000. (From the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention)." Journal of the American Medical Association 287, no. 9 (March 6, 2002): 1105-1112.
Scott, L. A., and M. S. Stone. "Viral Exanthems." Dermatology Online Journal 9 (August 2003): 4.
Sur, D. K., D. H. Wallis, and T. X. O'Connell. "Vaccinations in Pregnancy." American Family Physician 68 (July 15, 2003): 299-304.
"WHO: Vaccine Fears Could Lead to Unnecessary Deaths." Medical Letter on the CDC & FDA March 17, 2002: 11.


American Academy of Pediatrics (AAP). 141 Northwest Point Boulevard, Elk Grove Village, IL 60007. (847) 434-4000.
Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. 1600 Clifton Rd., NE, Atlanta, GA 30333. (800) 311-3435, (404) 639-3311.
Gale Encyclopedia of Medicine. Copyright 2008 The Gale Group, Inc. All rights reserved.


a highly contagious illness caused by a virus; it is usually a childhood disease but can be contracted at any age. Epidemics usually recur every 2 or 3 years and are most common in the winter and spring. In spite of the availability of a vaccine and intensive effort on the part of public health personnel to eradicate the disease, measles continues to occur in the United States. Called also rubeola.
Cause. The virus that causes measles is spread by droplet infection and can also be picked up by touching an article, such as a handkerchief, that an infected person has recently used. The incubation period is usually 11 days, although it may be as few as 9 or as many as 14. The patient can transmit the disease from 3 or 4 days before the rash appears until the rash begins to fade, a total of about 7 or 8 days. One attack of measles usually gives lifetime immunity to rubeola, although not to German measles (rubella), a somewhat similar disease.
Symptoms. Measles symptoms generally appear in two stages. In the first stage the patient feels tired and uncomfortable, and may have a running nose, a cough, a slight fever, and pains in the head and back. The eyes may become reddened and sensitive to light. The fever rises a little each day.

The second stage begins at the end of the third or beginning of the fourth day. The patient's temperature is generally between 38° and 40°C (103° and 104°F). Koplik's spots, small white dots like grains of salt surrounded by inflamed areas, can often be seen on the gums and the inside of the cheeks. A rash appears, starting at the hairline and behind the ears and spreading downward, covering the body in about 36 hours. At first the rash consists of separate pink spots, about a quarter of an inch in diameter, but later some of the spots may run together, giving the patient a blotchy look. The fever usually subsides after the rash has spread. The rash turns brownish and fades after 3 or 4 days.

The most serious complication of rubeola is encephalitis, which occurs in about 0.1 per cent of all cases and is responsible for an estimated 600 cases of mental retardation each year. Other complications include pneumonia, otitis media, and mastoiditis.
Patient Care. The patient should be kept in bed as long as the rash and fever continue, and should get as much rest as possible. Aspirin, nose drops, and cough medicine may be prescribed during this stage. Water and fluids can be given for fever. The sickroom should be well ventilated and fairly warm. If the patient's eyes are sensitive to light, strong sunlight should be kept out of the room. The rash may itch a great deal and prevent the patient from resting. If so, calamine lotion, cornstarch solution, or plain cool water will afford some relief. If the itching continues, antihistamine drugs may be necessary.

Measles can greatly lower resistance to other infections such as bronchitis, pneumonia, and ear infection. If the patient's temperature remains high for more than 2 days after the rash fades, or if he complains of pain in the ear, throat, chest, or abdomen, medical attention should be obtained without delay.

The person with measles should be placed under respiratory precautions until the fifth day of the rash. Anyone with a cold or cough should be kept away from the patient because another infection can cause serious complications. The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention recommend continuing respiratory isolation precautions for 4 days after start of the rash, except in immunocompromised patients, with whom precautions should be maintained for the duration of the illness.
Prevention. The first measles vaccine was developed and made available in the early 1960s. It consisted of killed virus and is now known to have conferred little or no immunity and, in addition, made the person susceptible to the development of atypical measles when exposed to the disease. Children who received this type of vaccine should be given the newer live vaccine in order to be protected against the disease. The live measles virus vaccine confers lifelong immunity in 95 per cent of those who receive potent vaccine. A 12 to 20 per cent potency failure can occur when the vaccine is not stored and refrigerated properly.

The live vaccine usually is given when the child is 15 months of age. Until then the child is protected by the temporary immunity acquired from its mother. If the vaccine is given before 15 months, the temporary immunity of the mother may prevent active immunity from taking place in the child. Children must be given the vaccine before exposure to measles, or within 48 hours after exposure; otherwise the vaccine is ineffective. If the vaccine cannot be given to a child exposed to measles, measles immune globulin (MIG) or the standard immune serum globulin is given; a waiting period of 3 months is then necessary before the measles vaccine is given. The vaccine is contraindicated during pregnancy.
German measles (three-day measles) rubella.
Miller-Keane Encyclopedia and Dictionary of Medicine, Nursing, and Allied Health, Seventh Edition. © 2003 by Saunders, an imprint of Elsevier, Inc. All rights reserved.


1. An acute exanthematous disease, caused by measles virus (genus Morbillivirus), a member of the family Paramyxoviridae, and marked by fever and other constitutional disturbances, a catarrhal inflammation of the respiratory mucous membranes, and a generalized dusky red maculopapular eruption; the eruption occurs early on the buccal mucous membrane in the form of Koplik spots, a manifestation useful in early diagnosis; average incubation period is from 10-12 days. Recovery is usually rapid, but respiratory complications and otitis media caused by secondary bacterial infections are common. Encephalitis occurs rarely. Subacute sclerosing parencephalitis may occur later and is associated with chronic infection. Synonym(s): morbilli
2. A disease of swine caused by the presence of Cysticercus cellulosae, the measle or larva of Taenia solium, the pork tapeworm.
3. A disease of cattle caused by the presence of Cysticercus bovis, the measle or larva of T. saginata, the beef tapeworm of humans.
Synonym(s): first disease
[D. maselen]
Farlex Partner Medical Dictionary © Farlex 2012


n. (used with a sing. or pl. verb)
a. An acute, contagious viral disease, usually occurring in childhood and characterized by eruption of red spots on the skin, fever, and catarrhal symptoms. Also called rubeola.
b. Black measles.
c. Any of several other diseases, especially German measles, that cause similar but milder symptoms.
2. A condition of pork or beef caused by the presence of tapeworm larvae.
3. A plant disease, usually caused by fungi, that produces small spots on leaves, stems, or fruit.
The American Heritage® Medical Dictionary Copyright © 2007, 2004 by Houghton Mifflin Company. Published by Houghton Mifflin Company. All rights reserved.


A highly contagious viral infection, primarily of children, which is characterised by high fever, lethargy, cough, conjunctivitis, coryza and a maculopapular rash; it is prevented by vaccination.
Measles kills ± 2 million children/year worldwide; it is airborne and can spread quickly, especially in elementary schools.

Clinical history; epidemiologic evidence (i.e., other children have same complaints); direct examination of characteristic multinucleated giant cells from scrapings of buccal mucosa, by LM or fluorescence microscopy.
Lymphopenia; increased IgM anti-measles antibody.
See Measles vaccine.

Preventive measures
Large doses of vitamin A decreases mortality, hospital stay and co-morbidities (e.g., pneumonia, croup, diarrhoea) by 50%.
Segen's Medical Dictionary. © 2012 Farlex, Inc. All rights reserved.


Hard measles, rubeola, 10-day measles A highly contagious viral infection primarily of children characterized by high fever, lethargy, cough, conjunctivitis, coryza, and a maculopapular rash; measles is prevented by vaccination; it is airborne and can spread quickly, especially in school Diagnosis Clinical Hx, epidemiologic evidence–ie, other children have same complaints, direct examination of multinucleated giant cells from scrapings of buccal mucosa by LM or fluorescence microscopy Lab Lymphopenia; ↑ IgM anti-measles antibody See Atypical measles, Hard measles, Subacute sclerosing panencephalitis.
McGraw-Hill Concise Dictionary of Modern Medicine. © 2002 by The McGraw-Hill Companies, Inc.


1. An acute exanthematous disease, caused by measles virus and marked by fever and other constitutional disturbances, a catarrhal inflammation of the respiratory mucous membranes, and a generalized maculopapular eruption of a dusky red color; the eruption occurs early on the buccal mucous membrane in the form of Koplik spots; incubation period is 10-12 days.
Synonym(s): morbilli, rubeola.
2. A disease of swine caused by the presence of Cysticercus cellulosae, the measle or larva of Taenia solium, the pork tapeworm.
3. A disease of cattle caused by the presence of C. bovis, the measle or larva of T. saginata, the beef tapeworm.
[D. maselen]

mea·sles, mumps, and ru·bel·la (MMR) vaccine

(mēz'elz mŭmps rū-bel'ă vak-sēn')
Combination of live attenuated forms of these viruses in an aqueous suspension.
Medical Dictionary for the Health Professions and Nursing © Farlex 2012


A highly infectious, often epidemic, disease of childhood caused by a paramyxovirus usually acquired by droplet inhalation. The incubation period is 10–14 days and just before the rash appears KOPLIK'S SPOTS may be seen in the mouth. There is fever, cough, running nose, misery, CONJUNCTIVITIS, and an irregular, red, mottled, slightly raised rash which lasts for about a week and then fades. Complications include OTITIS MEDIA, BRONCHITIS, PNEUMONIA and sometimes ENCEPHALITIS. The disease can be prevented by a vaccine which should be given to all children, aged 1–2 years, especially those who are debilitated and chronically ill and for whom there is no valid medical objection.
Collins Dictionary of Medicine © Robert M. Youngson 2004, 2005


an acute disease of human childhood in which red circular spots appear all over the body, there is a dry cough, low grade fever and sore throat. The condition is caused by the Morbilli virus. It is highly contagious, being spread in respiratory secretion, but once infected the individual is immune for life. Control is by the use of attenuated live virus vaccine given to children.
Collins Dictionary of Biology, 3rd ed. © W. G. Hale, V. A. Saunders, J. P. Margham 2005


An acute exanthematous disease, caused by measles virus, marked by fever and other constitutional disturbances, catarrhal inflammation of respiratory mucous membranes, and a generalized dusky red maculopapular eruption. Eruption occurs early on buccal mucous membrane in the form of Koplik spots, a manifestation useful in early diagnosis.
Synonym(s): morbilli.
[D. maselen]
Medical Dictionary for the Dental Professions © Farlex 2012