Diagnosis and Treatment of Measles

Measles Rash on Face
Measles. Christopher Badzioch/ Getty Images

What are Measles?

Measles are caused by one of the most contagious viruses ever identified. It is an illness that can range in severity from mild to deathly. The virus is spread through the air when a person coughs or sneezes, or when someone touches an infected surface and then rubs their eyes, nose or mouth. The virus can live up to two hours on a surface or in the air.

A vaccine used to prevent measles was developed in 1963 and the virus was virtually eradicated from the United States by the year 2000.

However, infected individuals from foreign countries have brought the virus back into the U.S. and pockets of unvaccinated individuals living in the United States have allowed the virus to make a comeback in this country in recent years. At the time of this writing, the U.S. is currently experiencing one of the worst outbreaks of measles in decades. Worldwide, measles is still one of the leading causes of death in children.

What are Symptoms of the Measles?

Within 7-14 days of contracting the measles virus an infected individual will typically develop some or all of the following symptoms:

  • fever (usually high, 102-104 degrees Fahrenheit)
  • fatigue
  • body aches
  • cough
  • runny nose
  • red eyes
  • watery eyes
  • characteristic rash (usually begins on the face at the hairline and spreads downward)
  • tiny white spots inside of the mouth

Complications of Measles

As previously mentioned, the measles can be quite serious and even result in death.

Approximately 3 in every 10 individuals who develop measles will develop one or more complications related to the illness. Complications from measles infections are more likely to occur in children under the age of 5 or adults over the age of 20 years. They are also more likely to occur in individuals who have compromised immune systems, malnutrition or vitamin A deficiency.

Complications of measles include:

  • ear infections
  • diarrhea
  • dehydration
  • pneumonia (the most common complication leading to death)
  • encephalitis (swelling of the brain which can cause convulsions, mental retardation and hearing loss to the point of deafness, blindness)
  • in pregnant women the measles can cause miscarriage, low birth weight of the baby or premature birth
  • subacute sclerosing panencephalitis (SSPE) - a rare and fatal disease of the central nervous system
  • death

How are Measles Treated?

Since it is caused by a virus the measles cannot be cured using antibiotics or other medications. Any treatments are intended to lessen the severity of symptoms. These treatment measures may include:

  • the administration of medications such as acetaminophen or ibuprofen to reduce fever and lessen the severity of body aches
  • intravenous fluids to treat or prevent dehydration
  • providing adequate nutrition including vitamin A supplements


Measles is highly preventable, but only through vaccination. Medical health professionals consider this vaccine safe and effective and point out that it has been in use for over 50 years.

A theory that the MMR vaccine is associated with autism has been widely discredited. According to the World Health Organization, measles vaccination prevented 15.6 million deaths between the years 2000-2013.

In the United States this vaccine is typically given as part of the MMR (measles, mumps, rubella) shot. Children typically receive the first dose at about 12 months of age and receive a booster shot (2nd dose) before entering kindergarten. The 2nd dose can be given earlier if necessary as long as the two shots are at least 28 days apart.


CDC. Measles. Accessed: January 31, 2015 from http://www.cdc.gov/measles/index.html

WHO. Measles. Accessed: January 31, 2015 from http://www.who.int/mediacentre/factsheets/fs286/en/

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