What is measles?

Measles is caused by the measles virus, spread by contact with infected people’s body fluids. It is a serious disease because it can lead to:

  • pneumonia and other infections of the airways
  • swelling of the brain (encephalitis), which can cause a brain injury
  • infection of the middle ear
  • adverse effects on pregnant women and their babies
  • death.

About 1 in 15 infected people get pneumonia, and 1 in 1,000 develops brain swelling. For every 10 people who develop brain swelling, between 2 and 4 people will develop a brain injury and 1 will die.

Symptoms

Measles symptoms include:

  • fever
  • generally feeling unwell
  • tiredness
  • runny nose
  • dry cough
  • sore, red eyes (conjunctivitis)
  • red rash.

Symptoms usually start about 10 to 12 days after catching the virus, and last for about 14 days. The rash often starts on the face or hairline, and spreads to the rest of the body quickly. The rash is not itchy, and disappears after about 1 week.

If measles leads to a more serious disease, other symptoms will develop, depending on which part of the body is affected.

Who is at risk

Measles can affect people at any age. People with a weakened immune system due to illness or injury have a higher risk of infection.

How it spreads

Measles spreads:

  • when an infected person coughs or sneezes, and you breathe it in
  • by direct contact with fluid from a person’s coughs or sneezes
  • when you touch something that has the measles virus on it, then touch your own nose or mouth.

Measles is so contagious that around 9 out of 10 people who come in contact with the virus and are not immunised will get measles. Measles spreads easily through families, workplaces, childcare centres and schools.

If you have measles, you can help stop the disease spreading by:

  • staying away from childcare, school, work or other places where you could spread the infection — your doctor will tell you when you are no longer infectious.

Prevention

Measles can be prevented by vaccination.

Find out more about getting vaccinated against measles.

Diagnosis

Your doctor can diagnose measles by:

  • looking at the rash
  • checking for other symptoms; such as fever, runny nose, dry cough
  • asking if you’ve been in contact with someone who has measles
  • doing a swab test from the back of your nose or a urine test
  • doing a blood test.

It is important to let the receptionist know of your concern so that you can be separated from other people in the waiting room.

If you have measles your doctor may be required to notify your state or territory health department.

Treatment

Measles has no treatment and usually gets better on its own.

You can relieve the symptoms by:

  • getting plenty of rest
  • drinking plenty of fluids
  • taking paracetamol.

If you have a serious case of measles you may need to go to hospital.

Contacts

National Immunisation Information Line

Last updated: 
23 September 2019