Spotting Symptoms & Preventing the Spread of Measles

You may be hearing a bit more about measles lately. And it's important to remember that measles can cause serious health complications at the time of infection, as well as later in life.

What is measles?

Measles, also called rubeola, is a very contagious disease caused by a virus. It starts with fever. Soon after, it causes a cough, runny nose, and watery eyes. Then a rash of red spots breaks out, which starts at the head and spreads to the rest of the body.

More than just a cold or the flu, measles is a serious disease that can be prevented with a vaccine.

What are the signs and symptoms of measles?

While measles is probably best known for the full-body rash it causes, early symptoms include:

  • High fever
  • Runny nose
  • Watery eyes
  • Hacking cough

Later symptoms include:

  • High fever
  • Koplik’s spots—small red rings with blue-white centers that appear inside the mouth
  • Rash—typically appears between days three to five after the onset of early symptoms, appearing first on the forehead, then moving downward over the face, neck and body, then down to the arms and feet

How does measles spread?

Measles is a highly contagious virus and therefore it is important to know how to protect yourself and others from becoming infected.

  • The measles virus lives in the nose and throat mucus of an infected person.
  • It can spread to others through coughing and sneezing.
  • The measles virus can live for up to two hours in an airspace where the infected person coughed or sneezed.
  • Breathing the contaminated air or touching an infected surface, then touching your eyes, nose, or mouth, can lead to infection.
  • Measles can spread quickly. In fact, 90% of the people close to a person infected who are not immune will also become infected.
  • Infected people can spread measles to others from four days before through four days after the rash appears.

How you can help stop the spread of measles

Call your child’s pediatrician immediately if you suspect your child:

  • Is not immunized against measles.
  • Has been exposed to someone with measles.
  • May have measles.

To prevent spreading the disease to other people, it’s important to let your child's pediatrician know about your measles concerns before planning your visit. If you suspect that your child may have measles, be sure to keep him home from school or day care for four days after the rash appears. 

How can I protect my newborn from measles?

Mothers who are immunized for measles pass protection for measles to their infants, but that protection begins to disappear in the first few months of an infant’s life.

During this time, make sure friends, caregivers and family members are up to date on their vaccinations.

How can I protect my young child from measles?

As the protection fades, immunization becomes necessary between 12 and 15 months. After receipt of one measles, mumps and rubella immunization (MMR) or measles, mumps, rubella and varicella immunization (MMRV), a child is 95 percent protected against measles.

“Making sure that your child receives a measles, mumps, and rubella (MMR) vaccine is the best way to protect your child from measles,” says Andi Shane, MD, MPH, System Medical Director, Infectious Diseases at Children’s Healthcare of Atlanta.

A booster dose is then given to a child around 4 to 6 years of age. This second dose is needed to boost protection from measles to 98%.

Vaccines prevent many harmful diseases and are safe. Discuss any vaccine-related decisions with your child’s pediatrician.

This content is general information and is not specific medical advice. Always consult with a doctor or healthcare provider if you have any questions or concerns about the health of a child. In case of an urgent concern or emergency, call 911 or go to the nearest emergency department right away. Some physicians and affiliated healthcare professionals on Children’s Healthcare of Atlanta team are independent providers and are not our employees.