Primary Care

Measles: What it is and how to prevent it.

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Measles is on the rise. Here is what you need to know to prevent catching it, what to do if you have it. 


By Gisell Vega, MD, Family Medicine, Nuvance Health Medical Practice


Measles is making a comeback. As cases rise, it’s crucial to understand how to recognize, prevent and manage this highly contagious virus. Learn what measles is, what to do if you have it and how you can prevent it.


What is measles?

Measles, also known as rubeola, is a highly contagious virus that causes a skin rash and fever. Affecting people of all ages, measles is an airborne disease that can spread like rapid fire when someone who is infected with it breathes, coughs or sneezes.


Measles is commonly spread from traveling out of the country. If you travel internationally, keep an eye on your health for three weeks when you return home.


The transmission of measles is so contagious that if one person has it, nine out of 10 people around them will catch the virus if they are not protected, according to the U.S Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC). You can become infected just by being in a room where a person with measles has been and even up to two hours after the person has left. 


Call your primary care provider immediately if you suspect you or your children have been exposed to measles.



What are the symptoms of measles?


Measles typically begins with a fever and progresses to a cough, runny nose, red eyes and body rash. Symptoms usually appear anywhere from seven to 14 days after exposure to the virus and often appear in phases.


The first phase of symptoms include: 

  • Fever

  • Cough

  • Runny nose

  • Red, watery eyes


The second phase of symptoms includes small white spots on the inside of your mouth two to three days after symptoms develop.


During the third and last phase, about three to five days after symptoms begin, a rash will break out. The rash typically starts out as flat, red spots on your face and gradually downward, covering your neck, back, arms, legs and feet. When the rash appears, it’s possible that your fever may spike above 104 degrees Fahrenheit.


Given the similarity of early symptoms to the flu, it’s essential to seek medical attention from your primary care provider if you’re experiencing any symptoms. They can perform testing to rule out any diagnoses.



Who is at risk for measles?


People who have not received the measles vaccine or who have recently traveled out of the country are vulnerable to contracting the virus.



While measles can pose serious health risks to people of all ages, certain groups face an elevated risk, including: 

  • Children under the age of 5

  • Adults over the age of 20

  • Pregnant Women

  • People with compromised immune systems


Complications from measles can range from mild to severe. Common complications include ear infections and diarrhea, but serious complications such as pneumonia and encephalitis can also arise.


It’s important for everyone to remain vigilant, but especially for those who face an elevated risk to take necessary precautions to avoid exposure to measles.



What to do if you have measles?


If you have measles, it’s important to take proactive measures to prevent the spread of the virus. Here is what you should do: 


Call your doctor: Don’t stress. A fever and rash can be scary at first, but it’s important to get in touch with your doctor so they can further evaluate you and your symptoms.



Stay home: Remain home for at least four days after you develop the rash and avoid contact with others.


Practice respiratory hygiene: Cover your mouth and nose with a tissue when coughing or sneezing. If you do not have a tissue, cough or sneeze into your elbow.


Practice hand hygiene: Wash your hands often with soap and warm water for at least 20 seconds, especially after coughing or sneezing.


Avoid sharing: Do not share food, drinks or utensils with others. Measles can spread through saliva.


Disinfect surfaces: Regularly disinfect frequently touched surfaces such as toys, doorknobs, railings and counters.


By following these safety measures, you can help protect yourself and others from contracting measles.



How can you prevent measles?


The most effective way to prevent measles is through vaccination. The MMR (measles, mumps and rubella) vaccine is highly effective in reducing the risk of contracting measles. The CDC recommends two doses of the MMR vaccine; one dose when your child is 12 to 15 months old and a second dose when your child is 4 to 6 years old.


If you are unsure if you have received the MMR vaccine, contact your primary care provider and they can tell you. If you or your children have not received the MMR vaccine, make an appointment with your doctor. 



How do you treat measles?


While there is no specific treatment for measles, you can take steps to alleviate your symptoms to support your body’s road to recovery. 


Here are ways you can manage measles:


Stay hydrated: Drink plenty of water and sports drinks with electrolytes to help prevent dehydration.



Rest: Get comfy and put your phone down. Getting plenty of rest and sleep will help your body heal.


Manage your fever: If you have a fever, you can take over-the-counter medications such as Tylenol to reduce your fever and alleviate discomfort.


The bottom line: Proactive measures can help contain the spread of measles. If you experience a fever, cough, runny nose, watery eyes and develop a rash, it’s important to reach out to your primary care provider immediately so they can provide proper testing. The MMR vaccine is the most effective way to prevent contracting and spreading measles. If you contract measles, it’s important to stay home, stay hydrated and get lots of rest.