Measles and Your Eyes

close up of a bloodshot eye
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Measles was once considered a childhood disease that occurred because of a lack of vaccination. These days most of us are aware of the common MMR vaccine that contains the vaccine to protect our children from measles. However, due to movements against vaccines, measles is raising its ugly head again. 

What Is Measles?

Measles, also known as rubeola, is a highly infectious disease caused by the rubeola virus.

When someone is infected with measles, they can develop fever, cough, sore throat, runny nose and conjunctivitis. It can also cause a reddish-rash all over the body. People often experience fatigue and diarrhea. The measles virus can be spread similar to the common cold virus. The virus can be spread by infected individuals coughing, sneezing or sharing food and drinks. The virus can be spread to others approximately four days before you develop the rash and four days after the rash appears. Depending on how sick the individual becomes, a host of other physical illness and complications can occur. Because measles has essentially been eradicated in the United States, most eye doctors are not familiar with all of the complications that can develop in the eye.

How It Can Harm Your Eyes and Vision

  • Keratitis - Keratitis is an infection or inflammation of the cornea, the clear dome-like structure on the front part of the eye. Symptoms of keratitis are blurred vision, pain, redness, light sensitivity and tearing. Some people feel like there is a piece of sand in their eye. Keratitis can be a more serious complication of measles because scarring of the cornea can lead to permanently decreased vision.
  • Corneal ulcers - If keratitis becomes worse, it may turn into a corneal ulcer. An ulcer is like an open sore which appears as white dots on the cornea. An ulcer develops secondary to a bacterial infection caused by measles. An ulcer can become painful and lead to scarring of the cornea which can lead to significantly decreased vision or blindness.
  • Conjunctivitis - Along with a fever, cough, runny nose and sometimes rash, some people develop conjunctivitis. Conjunctivitis is an inflammation of the clear tissue that covers the white part of the eye and lines the inside eyelid. This type of conjunctivitis is usually lumped in with other types of pink eye.
  • Retinopathy - Thankfully, measles induced retinopathy is rare, but there have been documented cases of substantial vision loss. In this type of retinopathy, the blood vessels appear thinned, the optic nerve swells, and fluid builds up in the retina causing a star-like pattern.
  • Optic neuritis - Optic neuritis sometimes develops along with measles retinopathy. Optic neuritis is an inflammation of the optic nerve which is the large nerve cable that connects the eye to the brain. This can develop more commonly in people that develop measles induced encephalitis (brain swelling.) Optic neuritis can cause temporary or permanent vision loss.

A Word From Verywell

Because your eye doctor may not be familiar with measles, it is important for you to be aware of the early signs including:

  • Cough
  • Runny nose
  • Conjunctivitis

People may have this triad of symptoms before they develop the typical measles rash.

The earlier it is identified, the faster treatment can be started and the spread of measles can be contained. Know that measles is 100% preventable when people are properly vaccinated. The tragic loss of vision by measles is life-altering and totally preventable.


The child, measles and the eye, Department of Immunization, vaccines and biologicals, Department of Child and Adolescent Health, World Health Organization Department of Immunization, Vaccines and Biologicals CH-1211 Geneva 27 Switzerland.