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5 Must-Know Facts About Measles

Get the truth about the disease that’s been making an ominous comeback. 

Updated on November 1, 2022

young child with measles rash
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After decades of obscurity in the United States, measles—the viral disease known for its spreading red rash and high fever—has re-emerged over the years as a potential threat. 

In 2000, the U.S. declared measles to be eliminated. Yet, in 2014 there were 667 cases reported to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC). Cases then spiked to 1,274 in 2019 before dropping sharply during the COVID-19 pandemic.
 
Learn more about measles in America and what you can do to protect yourself and your loved ones.

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Early Symptoms Are Flu-Like

Measles symptoms can first mimic those of a bad cold or a nasty flu. The signs come in stages, starting off with a high fever, runny nose, watery eyes, cough, and sore throat. Tiny white spots may also pop up inside the mouth within two to three days. Three to five days after symptoms first appear, a non-itchy red rash forms at the hairline and can spread all over the body.  

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It Is Alarmingly Contagious

An infected person can pass the virus through the air, usually by coughing or sneezing. Even worse: The virus can stay in the air or on contaminated surfaces for up to two hours. If you breathe that air or touch an affected surface and then touch your nose or mouth, you risk becoming infected, even long after the infected person has left the area. 

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No Treatment Exists

With plenty of rest and hydration, symptoms should subside within a week or two. Your healthcare provider (HCP) may suggest ways to ease symptoms, such as using a humidifier for a cough or taking ibuprofen for a fever. If your child is infected, keep them away from other children to avoid spreading the disease. Contact an HCP if symptoms don’t improve or seem to worsen. Watch for symptoms such as ear pain, pulling at the ear, and sleep troubles, since about 1 in 10 children with measles also develop ear infections. Shortness of breath, chest pain, or a cough with sputum may be signs of pneumonia.

young Black man, sick in bed, drinking a glass of water
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Adults Are At Risk

While measles is most commonly known for affecting kids, adults are susceptible, too. Complications for adults can be severe, especially for people over age 20, people with compromised immune systems, and pregnant people. In pregnancy cases, the disease may contribute to higher chances of early labor, miscarriage, and low birth weight. 

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You Can Protect Yourself

Measles is a one-time disease. In other words, if you’ve already had it, you won’t contract it again. But for those people who haven’t previously had the infection, vaccination against measles is crucial. All children should receive two rounds of the measles, mumps, and rubella (MMR) vaccine by age six. Adults who aren’t immune should get at least one round of the shot. Vaccination is vital to put an end to the spread of the disease.

Slideshow sources open slideshow sources

Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. Measles (Rubeola): Measles Cases and Outbreaks. Page last reviewed October 3, 2022.
Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. Measles (Rubeola): Measles History. Page last reviewed November 5, 2020.
Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. Measles (Rubeola): Measles Elimination. Page last reviewed November 5, 2020.
Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. Measles (Rubeola): Measles Signs & Symptoms. Page last reviewed November 5, 2020.
Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. Measles (Rubeola): Transmission of Measles. Page last reviewed November 5, 2020.
Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. Measles (Rubeola): Complications of Measles. Page last reviewed November 5, 2020.
World Health Organization. Measles. December 5, 2019.
Mayo Clinic. Measles. May 11, 2022.
KidsHealth.org. Measles. September 2019.
March of Dimes. Rubella and Pregnancy. Last reviewed August 2021.
Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. Measles (Rubeola): Top 4 Things Parents Need to Know about Measles. Page last reviewed November 5, 2020.
NYC Health. Measles Frequently Asked Questions. Revised August 2019.

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