The Lowdown on Measles: What Moms Need to Know

kid with measles

With measles spreading across the US, parents are understandably nervous and eager to know the facts about this highly contagious disease. Look no further than this list to know what it is, what to do, and how to keep your kids safe.


What it is: Measles is a serious viral infection that was all but eliminated in the US in 2000, with less than 200 cases per year. However, lower immunization rates have caused a resurgence of the disease, with more than 600 cases of measles reported in 2014 and 102 cases in January 2015 alone.

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How you get it: Measles is considered the most contagious virus there is. "If someone coughs, sneezes, or talks, the virus floats into the air and can remain there for at least two hours," says Robert Danoff, MD, AKA "Dr. Rob," a family physician in Philadelphia from Aria Health. Non-immunized individuals in the same room as an infected person face a 90 percent chance of contracting the disease.

Symptoms to look for: If you're exposed to measles, it usually takes around 10-12 days for the first symptoms to show, which are typically a low fever of 100 or 101 degrees Fahrenheit. Then, by around day three, that fever will skyrocket to 102 or 104 or even higher and may be accompanied by a cough, runny nose, and red eyes. "By day four, you may see a red rash around the hairline and behind the ears, which will spread from there, as well as red or white dots in the throat or mouth," says Dr. Danoff.

Why it's serious: Aside from the rash, fever, runny nose, and red eyes, measles can cause severe nausea, vomiting, and dehydration. Five percent of patients will get pneumonia. Even more worrisome, 1 to 3 cases out of 1,000 will get measles encephalitis, an inflammation around the brain that can be fatal. For every 1,000 kids who get measles, one to two will die from it.

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How to avoid it: The best way to avoid measles is to get the MMR vaccine, which is typically given in a two-part regimen. Kids can get the first shot around 12 months (with 95 percent effectiveness), and will typically get a second shot at 4 years (at which point it's 99 percent effective). If your children didn't get their shots, immunizations can still be given at any age.

What to do if you spot symptoms: As soon as you spot symptoms of measles -- the big early tip-off is the sky-high temperature along with red eyes, running nose, and a cough -- call your doctor immediately. He may clear his office for a time you can come in to confirm the diagnosis. Don't wait until you see a rash, since an early diagnosis can protect your child from the disease. "If a child has measles, if you give the MMR vaccine within three days of when he's been exposed, it can protect him from getting measles," says Dr. Danoff.

Treatment: While there is no "cure" for measles, kids can receive shots of immunoglobulins -- antibodies that help fight the disease -- to lessen the severity of the symptoms. You can also administer age- and weight-appropriate amounts of acetaminophen to lower the fever. Most measles patients will recover in about 10 days.

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Image via Stacy Barnett/shutterstock

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