Measles: Symptoms and treatment

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Symptoms of measles

Symptoms can appear 7 to 21 days after being infected with the measles virus. People infected with measles can spread it to others before they have symptoms.

Initial symptoms include:

  • fever
  • cough
  • runny nose
  • red, watery eyes

Small, white spots may appear inside the mouth and throat 2 to 3 days after symptoms begin.

About 3 to 7 days after symptoms begin, a rash that looks like small red spots:

  • develops on the face
  • spreads down the body, arms and legs

The rash can last 4 to 7 days.

Most people recover from measles within 2 or 3 weeks.

Complications of measles

Common complications from measles include:

  • ear infection
  • pneumonia
  • diarrhea

Severe complications, while rare, can result from a measles infection, such as:

  • respiratory failure
  • inflammation and swelling of the brain (encephalitis)
  • death

Long-term complications of encephalitis can include:

  • blindness
  • deafness
  • intellectual disability

It's also possible to develop a neurological condition called subacute sclerosing panencephalitis 7 to 10 years after recovering from measles. It affects the brain and can develop even if it looks like you've fully recovered from the initial infection. The condition is fatal and the risk of developing it may be higher if you have measles before 2 years of age.

People who get measles while pregnant may:

  • have a miscarriage
  • go into premature labour
  • give birth to an infant with low birth weight

If you become ill

If you or your child develop symptoms of measles, isolate at home and call a health care provider immediately. Let the health care facility know you might have measles. They will take appropriate precautions to prevent spread to others as soon as you arrive.

Do not go to a health care facility or office without calling ahead first.

Diagnosing measles

It's very important to diagnose measles early to help prevent it from spreading to other people.

Health care providers may suspect measles based on your symptoms and your possible exposure to the virus. For example, they may ask you if:

  • you're aware of an outbreak in your community
  • you've had exposure to someone with measles
  • you've recently travelled to a place where measles is present

A health care provider will likely collect a sample to confirm the diagnosis with a lab test, which may include:

  • a blood test
  • a urine test
  • swabs from the back of your nose or throat

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Treating measles

There's no specific antiviral medication for a measles infection. Treatment helps relieve symptoms, and in some cases, treats or helps to prevent severe complications. Most people with measles recover at home, but people with severe measles may require hospitalization.

A health care provider will likely:

  • recommend medication to reduce your fever
  • tell you to drink plenty of fluids and get lots of rest
  • tell you to stay home until 4 days after the rash first appears to limit the spread of the virus to other people

If your symptoms worsen and you need to seek health care, call ahead. This way, a health care provider can arrange to see you without spreading the infection to others.

If you're diagnosed with measles, your local public health unit will be in touch with you to try to figure out:

  • how you became infected
  • who else you have been in contact with who was possibly exposed to the virus

This is called contact tracing.

Most people fully recover from measles within 2 or 3 weeks if they don't develop complications.

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