Measles

What is Measles?

Measles is a common viral infection which presents as a reddish-brown rash that develops over the entire body and is highly contagious.

What causes measles?

Measles occurs when a child inhales infected droplets or touches a surface on which these droplets have landed. The droplets contain the Morbillivirus – a virus which causes a respiratory infection and rash in children under the age of 5. You only need to be near to someone who has coughed or sneezed these infected droplets into the air to contract this infection. Children are particularly prone as their immune systems are underdeveloped compared to adults, plus they are often in close proximity to each other, for example playing at a nursery where coughs, colds and other infections are very common.

Once the virus has invaded your body it multiplies, spreading through your entire respiratory system and skin. This occurs within hours.

What are the symptoms of measles?

The first symptoms appear 10 days following initial exposure to the virus. These include watery eyes, a runny nose, a sore throat, sneezing, a dry cough and a mild temperature although this may become severe as the illness develops. Additional symptoms may be sore eyes which are sensitive to light, small, grey-white spots in the mouth and throat, generalised aches and pains, severe tiredness and lack of appetite.

Your child will appear miserable, and a skin rash will develop 4 days after these initial symptoms. The rash starts with the ears before spreading to the head, face, legs and then the rest of the body. It develops as small spots which then increase in size and may group together in patches.

How is measles diagnosed?

It is easy to mistake a measles rash for another similar condition but if it is accompanied by other symptoms such as the respiratory infection (runny nose, coughing and sneezing) then measles is usually confirmed.

It is important that you inform your doctor if you or your child has measles as it enables them to detect the source of the infection and prevent it from spreading any further. Another reason for visiting your doctor is that measles can turn into a more serious illness. It is usually a relatively mild condition but there is the risk of complications such as pneumonia which occurs in a small percentage of cases. There have even been a few fatalities from measles although this is very rare.

Your doctor will confirm a diagnosis via a physical examination and discussion of the symptoms. He or she may perform a blood test as well. Your doctor should notify the local health authority and in the case of a child, their nursery or school as well.

What is the treatment for measles?

Measles is a viral infection which means it cannot be treated with antibiotics. Fortunately, most cases clear up without the need for medication. Once the skin rash has appeared it is a case of resting and giving your body the chance to fight off the symptoms. You can treat the symptoms but if there are no problems then this infection will disappear after 10 days.

Children can be given child friendly painkillers such as ibuprofen, but do not give any child under the age of 16 aspirin as there is a serious risk of complications if you do. Draw the curtains in the bedroom and lounge to protect your child’s sore eyes and use a damp cotton wool ball to clean around them. Ensure that your child drinks as much fluid as possible to prevent dehydration. If you are the parent of a child with measles then wait for at least 5 days following the appearance of the skin rash before allowing them to return to school to prevent the spread of any infection. Ask your doctor for advice about this if necessary.

The only time antibiotics would be prescribed is if your child developed a secondary infection which is bacterial in nature. Antibiotics are effective at treating bacterial infections but do not work with viral infections.

What are the complications of measles?

Measles are worse in adults who are also at greater risk of complications, but children with a poorly functioning immune system or a bad diet are also at risk. Babies and toddlers are also at increased risk of complications. These include nausea, vomiting, conjunctivitis (eye infection), diarrhoea, inner ear infection and convulsions. These are the most likely complications. Other less common complications include meningitis, pneumonia, encephalitis (swelling of the brain), hepatitis and bronchitis.

Can measles be prevented?

Yes, by vaccinating your child with the MMR vaccine. This vaccine contains weakened versions of live measles, mumps and rubella viruses and works by triggering the immune system (the body's natural defence against infection and illness) to produce antibodies against measles, mumps and rubella. If your child then comes into contact with one of the diseases, the immune system will recognise it and immediately produce the antibodies needed to fight it. Your doctor will be able to advise you about this.