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Measles is an extremely contagious respiratory disease caused by a virus. It spreads in the air through coughing and sneezing and can live for up to two hours on surfaces or in an airspace where an infected person has coughed or sneezed. While no longer common in the U.S., it is still is common in many other countries and may be brought into the U.S. by unvaccinated travelers. The best way to prevent measles is to be fully vaccinated.

Our Experts

Patsy Stinchfield, MS, RN, CPNP

Patsy Stinchfield, MS, RN, CPNP, is an infectious disease nurse practitioner and Director of Infection Prevention and Control and the Children’s Immunization Project at Children’s Minnesota. She is a widely-recognized infectious diseases specialist and expert on vaccinations and immunizations, and has served as a source for the Associated Press, The New York Times, USA Today and more.

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Your Measles Questions Answered

During a measles outbreak, vaccine recommendations may change. To see the latest vaccine guidelines, visit the Minnesota Department of Health measles website and visit the “For Parents and Caregivers” section.

Who should be vaccinated and when?

  • During a usual MMR vaccine schedule, children should get their first dose of the MMR (measles, mumps, rubella) vaccine at 12-15 months old. The second dose of MMR is usually given between 4 and 6 years of age, but may be given as soon as one month after the first dose.
  • An early dose of MMR is recommended for children 6-12 months of age who will be traveling internationally to areas where measles is endemic (particularly Kenya) or where outbreaks are occurring (including Europe).
  • All adults who have not had measles or a measles vaccination should receive the MMR vaccine, particularly if they were born in 1957 or later.
  • Learn more about the MMR vaccine from Patsy Stinchfield and how Children’s Minnesota is leading the way in making vaccinations easier for children.

What are the symptoms of measles?

  • Rash AND
  • Fever AND
  • Cough OR runny nose OR watery/mattering eyes

Symptoms appear about eight to 12 days after a person is exposed to measles. The first symptom is usually fever and then a rash. The rash consists of small red spots, some of which are slightly raised. Spots and bumps in tight clusters give the skin a splotchy red appearance. The rash usually appears two to three days after the fever begins and lasts five to six days. The rash begins at the hairline, moves to the face and upper neck and down the body.

If I suspect someone in my family has symptoms of measles, what should I do?

Be sure to stay home and avoid having visitors until you have talked with your doctor or clinic. Your doctor or clinic will tell you if you should come in for a visit.

How serious is measles?

Measles can lead to hospitalization and death.

Many people with measles have complications like diarrhea, ear infections, pneumonia or acute encephalitis (a brain infection that can lead to permanent brain damage). Complications are more common in children younger than 5 and adults older than 20.

Measles during pregnancy increases the risk of premature labor, miscarriage and low birth weight infants.

Measles can be especially severe in people whose immune systems are weak.

How does measles spread?

Measles is spread through the air when people who have it breathe and cough. It is highly contagious. You cannot get measles more than once because after you have had it you are immune.

How long is a person with measles contagious?

A person with measles can pass it to others from four days before a rash appears to four days after it appears.

Is there a treatment for measles?

No, there is no specific treatment for measles. People with measles need bed rest, fluids and control of fever. They also may need treatment for complications such as diarrhea, ear infection or pneumonia.

If my child or I have been exposed to measles, what should I do?

  • Call your doctor or clinic immediately. You will be told if you need to come in for a visit.
  • If you have not been vaccinated, getting an MMR shot within three days of being exposed may prevent you from getting measles.
  • If you get a shot of immune globulin (a blood product with antibodies to the measles virus) within six days of being exposed to measles, it may prevent or lessen the severity of measles.

Content source: Minnesota Department of Health

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