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Measles is an infection caused by a virus. It occurs most often in the late winter and spring. When someone with the virus coughs or sneezes, contaminated droplets spread through the air and land on nearby surfaces. Your child can catch the virus by inhaling these droplets or by touching them and then touching their face, mouth, eyes or ears.

Your child is more likely to develop measles if they do not have the measles vaccination and if they travel to other countries without being vaccinated.​

Signs and symptoms of measles

Measles rash
Torso of child with measles rash Torso of child with measles rash
The measles rash starts on the face, and spreads down the body towards the feet.

Common symptoms of measles include:

  • a fever that lasts for a couple of days
  • a cough, runny nose and red and watery eyes (conjunctivitis​) that follow the fever
  • a rash that starts on the face and upper neck and spreads down the body before spreading​ to the arms, hands, legs and feet.

After about five days, the rash fades in the same order it appeared.

How measles is diagnosed

Measles is diagnosed by a physical examination of your child. The doctor may also order blood tests or viral swabs from the nose or throat. If you think your child has measles, call your doctor before going to see them so the infection is not passed on to other patients at the doctor’s office.

Close-up of a measles rash
Close-up of measles rash Close-up of measles rash
The characteristic measles rash is red and blotchy.

How measles spreads

Measles is a very contagious disease. This means that it spreads very easily from one person to another. 

The measles virus lives in the mucus in the nose and throat of infected people. When an infected person sneezes or coughs, droplets spray into the air. The droplets land on surfaces nearby, where they can spread the virus for up to two hours.

People with measles are usually contagious from one or two days before until four days after symptoms appear. Children with immune system problems often stay contagious much longer.

Complications of measles

Complications are dangerous and rates are highest in young children. About a quarter of children under five years of age with measles will require admission to hospital. Some children with a measles infection will also get an ear infection, diarrhea or even pneumonia.

Rarely, some children who have measles also get a swelling of the brain called encephalitis. Severe cases of encephalitis can lead to seizures, hearing loss, brain damage or death.

Children with vitamin A deficiency who get measles can become blind.

Caring for your child at home

There is no specific treatment for measles. You can support your child by trying to make them comfortable.

Monitor the fever

You can use acetaminophen or ibuprofen to treat the fever. Do not give ASA to children.

Isolate your child and allow them bed rest

Your child cannot go to school or day care until eight days after the rash first appears. In Canada, cases of measles are reported to the Public Health Department. They will follow up with you about when it is safe for your child to their daily routine.

Give your child fluids

Offer your child water and other fluids often.

​When to see a doctor

Call your child’s regular doctor if:

  • your child’s fever does not lessen four days after the rash starts
  • your child’s coughing gets worse
  • your child develops ear pain.

Take your child to the nearest Emergency Department or call 911 if your child:

  • becomes short of breath or develops persistently noisy breathing
  • shows a change in behaviour or movement problems
  • has a seizure
  • develops a severe headache or persistent vomiting.

How to prevent measles

Measles vaccine is available free of charge in many countries. Children receive two needles or “shots” of measles vaccine.

  • The first is usually given after your child's first birthday.
  • The second is usually given before your child starts school.

Measles is included in the measles, mumps and rubella (MMR) vaccine. Ask your doctor about the MMR vaccine if you or your child are not immune.

In most cases, immunization protects your child against measles. It minimizes the amount of measles exposure in the community. Immunization also prevents complications of measles, such as severe pneumonia, lung infections and encephalitis.

​Reactions to the vaccine

When given the measles vaccine shot, some children develop mild symptoms of the disease. This is normal. If this happens, usually a pink rash appears about seven to 10 days after the shot. This rash lasts for about three days. The child may also develop a mild fever and minor joint pain during this time. If you are concerned in any way, call your doctor.

Importance of measles vaccination

Since the introduction of the measles vaccine in Canada, the number of measles infections fell from 400,000 (and 75 deaths) a year in 1963 to less than 2,000 a year in 1995. 

In countries where the vaccine is free and readily available, vaccination has helped to reduce measles to very low levels. However, measles is still common in other parts of the world. You, your child and your family should be vaccinated against measles to protect yourself from the disease and its complications, especially if you are travelling overseas.​

Key points

  • Measles is an infection caused by a virus. It is very contagious and has no specific treatment.
  • Usually, measles causes fever, coughing, conjunctivitis and a rash.
  • Complication rates are highest among young children and include pneumonia, blindness, brain damage and death.
  • Measles can be prevented with immunization.

Shawna Silver, MD, FRCPC, FAAP, PEng