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Understanding measles

Most cases of the measles aren't severe, but in some people, the infection can cause serious complications. All children should be vaccinated against it.

Measles is an illness caused by a virus. Also called rubeola, measles usually occurs during childhood, but adults can also get the disease.

The virus that causes measles is easily spread through the air when a person coughs or sneezes. If a person is infected by the virus, it takes 7 to 14 days for symptoms to appear, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.

Symptoms may include:

  • Fever.
  • Runny nose.
  • Red, watery eyes.
  • Hacking cough.
  • White spots that resemble grains of salt on the inside of the cheeks.
  • A red rash that starts on the face and neck and spreads downward.

Preventing measles

It's not possible to get measles more than once. But it's best to get vaccinated so that you don't get the disease at all. In the United States, most children receive the measles vaccine when they are about 1 year old and again between the ages of 4 and 6 years. Children are usually given the MMR vaccine, which combines several vaccinations and prevents measles, mumps and rubella.

Adults who have not had measles or the vaccine should get the MMR shot as soon as possible, especially if they plan to go to college, work in the healthcare field or travel internationally.

Complications from the measles

The symptoms of measles usually start to go away in 7 to 10 days. But in severe cases, measles may cause complications such as ear and chest infections, diarrhea and encephalitis. Children under 5 years and adults over 20 years old are the most likely to develop complications.

Encephalitis is an inflammation of the brain that happens in about 1 in every 1,000 measles cases. It usually starts two days to two weeks after the rash appears, according to Merck Manuals, and may cause seizures, coma, developmental disabilities or death.

Measles and pregnancy

If measles occurs during pregnancy, there may be an increased risk of low birth weight, premature labor or miscarriage.

Pregnant women who haven't had measles or received the measles vaccine should see a doctor right away if they come into contact with someone with measles. The vaccine should not be given during pregnancy. Women planning a pregnancy need to be vaccinated at least one month prior to becoming pregnant.

Reviewed 3/1/2022

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