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What You Should Know About Measles

If you’ve been following the news in recent months, you have likely heard reports about the growing concern over measles. Measles was declared eradicated from the US in the year 2000 due to the efforts of health agencies spanning several decades by practicing widespread vaccination. However, more recently, a decrease in vaccination rates in several communities has led to a rise in cases.

Dr. Raghavendra Tirupathi, Medical Director of Keystone Infectious Diseases, gives some insight about the disease in today’s “Take Care” article.

How is measles spread and what are the symptoms?

Measles is a highly contagious disease caused by a virus that lives in the nose and throat mucus of an infected person. It can spread to others through coughing and sneezing.

Most of the American cases since 2000 have been the result of people traveling to or from countries where measles is an endemic because there is little vaccination. When those non-immune travelers return to communities with decreased herd immunity, they tend to spread the infection to others. Because measles is so contagious, between 93 percent and 95 percent of people in a community need to be vaccinated to achieve herd immunity. 2019 has been the worst year so far with 971 cases since Jan 1, 2019.

The symptoms of measles generally appear about seven to 14 days after a person is infected. Measles typically begins with a high fever, cough, runny nose and red, watery eyes. Two or three days after symptoms begin, tiny white spots may appear inside the mouth. Infected people can spread measles to others from four days before through four days after the rash appears. Three to five days after symptoms begin, a rash breaks out. It usually begins as flat red spots that appear on the face at the hairline and spread downward to the neck, trunk, arms, legs and feet. Small raised bumps may also appear on top of the flat red spots.

While most patients recover from the infection, sometimes it could cause fatal complications including pneumonia, encephalitis and death.

Am I protected against measles?

You are considered protected from measles if you have written documentation (records) showing at least one of the following:

  • You received two doses of a measles-containing vaccine
  • A laboratory evidence that you had measles at some point in your life
  • A laboratory evidence that you are immune to measles
  • You were born before 1957

People who have received two doses of a measles vaccine as children, according to the U.S. vaccination schedule, are protected for life and do not need a booster dose.

What should I do if I’m unsure whether I’m immune to measles?

You should first try to find your vaccination records or documentation of measles immunity. If you do not have written documentation of measles immunity, you should get vaccinated with the measles-mumps-rubella (MMR) vaccine. There is no harm in getting another dose of MMR vaccine if you may already be immune to measles. Another option is to have a doctor test your blood to determine whether you’re immune.

How effective is the measles vaccine?

The measles vaccine is very effective with 97% efficacy at preventing measles if exposed to the virus. People are usually fully protected about two or three weeks after vaccination. When you get the measles vaccine, your immune system makes protective virus-fighting antibodies against the virus.

How safe and effective is the measles vaccine?

It is extremely safe and effective. The MMR vaccine, which was first licensed in 1963, causes no side effects in most children. Small numbers may get a mild fever, rash, soreness or swelling, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. Adults or teenagers may feel temporary soreness or stiffness at the injection site. Multiple large studies have essentially ruled out any link between the measles vaccine and autism.

If I have been exposed to someone who has measles, what do I do?

Immediately call your healthcare provider. If you are not immune to measles, the MMR vaccine or a medicine called immune globulin may help reduce your risk of developing measles. Your doctor can advise you, and monitor you for signs and symptoms of measles.


This article contains general information only and should not be used as a substitute for professional diagnosis, treatment or care by a qualified health care provider.