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What is measles? 

Measles is an illness caused by a virus. It can spread quickly from person to person. Symptoms include high fever and a red skin rash. 

Measles can be serious. It is especially dangerous for babies, young children, and people with weak immune systems. Many children with cancer, sickle cell disease, and other medical conditions have weak immune systems.

Children with measles can develop potentially life-threatening complications such as pneumonia and brain swelling. In the United States, about 1 out of 5 people who get measles need hospital care.  

Measles vaccination works very well to prevent the illness. Talk to your health care provider about the MMR vaccine. Children with weak immune systems cannot get the MMR vaccine because it contains live virus.

Illustration of a baby with measles getting temperature taken

Symptoms of measles include a fever and skin rash that lasts 5-6 days.

Symptoms of measles

Signs and symptoms of measles include:

  • Fever
  • Runny nose
  • Cough
  • Red, watery eyes
  • Tiny white spots inside the mouth (Koplik spots)
  • Rash

How measles symptoms start:

  • It takes about 7–14 days for symptoms to appear after being exposed to measles.
  • Fever is usually the first symptom. Fever may reach 104°F (40°C) or higher.
  • A skin rash develops 3–5 days after symptoms start. This is usually about 14 days after being exposed to the virus.
  • The measles rash begins at the hairline, moves to the face and upper neck, and then moves down the rest of the body. It usually lasts 5–6 days.

Diagnosis of measles

Your health care provider will do a physical exam and ask about symptoms and possible exposure to the virus. Measles is diagnosed through tests of the blood, urine, or a sample from a nose or throat swab. 

Treatment for measles

Measles is caused by a virus, and there is no specific medical treatment for the infection. Most people recover in 10-14 days.

To help manage symptoms of measles:

  • Drink plenty of fluids.
  • Rest.
  • Treat symptoms using over-the-counter medicines as recommended by your health care provider.

Watch for worsening of symptoms or health problems such as ear infections and diarrhea. Monitor for emergency warning signs such as dehydration, seizures, decrease in level of consciousness, or breathing problems. Seek medical care if symptoms get worse or do not improve.

MMR vaccine

The MMR vaccine works very well to prevent measles. It protects against 3 illnesses: measles, mumps, and rubella.

Children usually get 2 doses of MMR vaccine given as a shot:

  • Babies usually get the first MMR dose after their first birthday.
  • Children get another dose between 4 and 6 years of age.

Your child’s MMR vaccine schedule may be different if you live in a country other than the United States or travel internationally.

Some people may get an MMRV vaccine which protects against measles, mumps, rubella, and varicella (chickenpox).  

MMR Vaccine in Children with Weak Immune Systems

The MMR vaccine contains live strains of measles, mumps, and rubella. The strains in the vaccine are weaker than the actual virus. They are harmless to people with normal immune systems. But children with weak immune systems cannot get the MMR vaccine because it contains live virus.

Talk to your care team about getting the MMR shot for family caregivers and siblings. When all other family members are vaccinated, it helps provide a circle of protection around the patient.

How measles spreads

Measles spreads through the air by droplets that contain the virus. It passes easily from person to person. Measles can spread from 4 days before the rash appears until 4 days after it appears.

If you or your child have been near someone with measles, then you have been exposed to the virus.

What to do if you are exposed to measles

People who have been vaccinated against measles have a low risk of getting sick. If you or your child has been exposed to measles or has symptoms, call before going to your clinic or hospital. This will help avoid putting other people at risk.

If a person is not vaccinated, getting the MMR vaccine within 72 hours of exposure to the virus might prevent the disease.

If you have not been vaccinated or if you are not sure if you have immunity, talk to your health care provider about getting the MMR vaccine.

For more information

If you have questions about measles or the MMR vaccine, please talk to your care team.

Key points about measles

  • Measles is caused by a virus that spreads quickly and easily from person to person.
  • Symptoms include a high fever and red skin rash.
  • The MMR vaccine works very well to protect against measles.
  • Children with weak immune systems should not get the MMR vaccine.
  • It is very important for people to be vaccinated. This helps protect others who are not able to get the vaccine.

Find more information on measles and measles vaccination

Reviewed: February 2024