Key points to remember about measles
- measles can be a serious disease
- it's caused by a virus
- measles is very infectious – it can spread very easily from one person to another
- it usually takes 10 - 12 days from contact with someone with measles to the first symptom
- if you think your child might have measles, phone Healthline on 0800 611 116 or your family doctor as soon as possible for advice – make sure to phone your doctor before visiting
- if your child has measles, your doctor must tell the local public health service
- keep your child resting at home until they are well again
- our public health service will advise you about the safest time for your child to return to school or childcare
- children and adults with measles often develop complications like pneumonia
- immunisation is the only way to prevent measles
What is measles?
Measles can be a serious disease. It's caused by a virus. Measles is very easily spread from one person to another. Measles is also known by the names morbilli or rubeola.
What are the signs and symptoms of measles?
It usually takes 10 – 12 days from contact with someone with measles to the first symptom appearing but it can take from 7-18 days. This is called the incubation period.
The illness begins with the following, which last for 2 to 4 days:
- high fever
- runny nose
- loss of appetite
- sore red eyes (conjunctivitis or 'pink eye')
You can sometimes see small white spots (Koplik spots) inside the mouth near the back teeth early in the disease, as in the photo.
A rash follows and the white spots inside the mouth fade. The rash appears on the head and gradually spreads down the body to the arms and legs, as in the photo. It lasts for up to one week.
A person who has measles is most infectious in the early stages of their disease - from 5 days before the symptoms first appear to 5 days after the appearance of the rash.
Children usually look and feel quite unwell and miserable with measles. They are most unwell during the first day or two after the appearance of the rash.
For more photos see the website DermNetNZ (New Zealand Dermatological Society).
How easy to catch is measles?
Measles is very easy to catch. It's spread through the air by infectious droplets through coughing and sneezing. Measles can also be spread by direct contact with the secretions from the nose or throat of a person infected with measles, and by touching things or surfaces contaminated by these secretions.
Can I do anything to prevent my child catching measles?
Immunisation given on time is the only way to prevent measles. Two doses of the measles, mumps, rubella (MMR) vaccine is 99 percent effective in preventing measles.
See the page about measles immunisation on this website.
What should I do if I think my child has measles?
Phone Healthline on 0800 611 116 or your family doctor as soon as possible for advice. Make sure to phone your doctor before visiting. That way they can take steps to make sure you don't wait in a public area where other people might catch measles from your child.
How do I prevent measles spreading?
If your child has measles, you will need to keep them in isolation.
Isolation (quarantine) means staying at home and away from daycare/early childhood services/school, group and social activities, sports and recreation events and public places like cinemas and shopping malls. Adults with measles should also stay away from work and community gatherings. You should only see people who are immune to measles when you are in isolation.
Your child will need to stay in isolation until they are cleared to return to normal activities. This is until they are no longer infectious. The infectious period usually ends 5 days after the appearance of the rash. Your public health service should give you advice about this. They should also advise about what steps to take for people who have been in contact with you and might get measles.
What is the treatment for measles?
Because measles is caused by a virus, there is no specific treatment – the virus just has to run its course.
Antibiotics are not helpful for measles and will not be prescribed by your doctor unless your child develops a bacterial infection as a complication of measles.
In severe cases of measles, particularly when there are more serious complications, hospital treatment may be necessary.
How can I care for my child at home?
- give paracetamol for pain or discomfort if needed. You must follow the dosage instructions on the bottle. It is dangerous to give more than the recommended dose
- never give your child or young person aspirin as this may increase the risk of Reye syndrome, which is a rare and serious illness
- see information about treating fever on the fever page of this website
- give your child water, fruit juice or milk often, to prevent dehydration. (If your child will not take fluids or is drowsy, don't force it. Seek medical or health professional advice immediately)
- use saltwater drops (saline) to treat a stuffy nose - ask your pharmacist or family doctor for instructions
- damp cotton wool can be used to clean away any crustiness around the eyes. Use one piece of cotton wool per wipe for each eye. Gently clean the eye from inner to outer lid
- keep your child at home and resting until they are well and your public health service advises that they can return to school or daycare
Can there be any complications?
Complications from measles are common - they occur in about 30 percent of people with the disease. Some of these include:
- ear infections (otitis media)
- diarrhoea and dehydration
- ulcers of the eye (corneal ulcers)
A more rare but serious complication is acute inflammation of the brain (encephalitis) which occurs in one in 1,000 children and adults with measles.
Children under 5 years of age and adults over 20 years of age are more at risk of complications. Children with a higher risk of developing severe measles and complications are those who are malnourished, have long-lasting (chronic) diseases or a weakened infection-fighting (immune) system. About 15 percent of all notified cases of measles will end up in hospital.
When should I seek help?
You should see a doctor urgently if your child:
- has trouble feeding or is not able to drink fluids
- is weeing less than normal (for infants, their nappies remain dry or there are fewer than 3 wet nappies in 24 hours)
- has difficulty breathing
- is very irritable and is not wanting to be held
- is becoming more tired, sleepy or drowsy
- develops a worsening headache
- improves and then suddenly becomes worse
- doesn't seem to be improving or you are concerned for any reason
Dial 111 within New Zealand for urgent medical help (use the appropriate emergency number in other countries) if:
- your child becomes floppy, very drowsy or is difficult to wake
- your child's breathing becomes very fast or noisy
- becomes very pale or has blue lips or gums
Immunisation Advisory Centre. 2011. Measles - for parents and caregivers. Immunisation Advisory Centre. University of Auckland.
http://www.immune.org.nz/sites/default/files/factsheets/DiseaseMeaslesImac 20110919V13Final_0.pdf [Accessed 10/05/2016]
Ministry of Health. 2014. Immunisation Handbook 2014. Wellington: Ministry of Health. http://immunisation.book.health.govt.nz/ [Accessed 10/05/2016]
The photos on this page are reproduced courtesy of the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, US.