As Outbreak Continues, Know the Signs and Symptoms of a Measles Infection

As Outbreak Continues, Know the Signs and Symptoms of a Measles Infection
Image: Pixabay
February 18, 2015

Since late December there have been more than 140 reports of measles spanning 17 states, with the majority of those cases being located in California, Oregon and Washington.

The outbreak has been linked to an infected traveler who visited California's Disneyland around Christmas and has since spurred debate about vaccines, vaccine safety and laws allowing school children to opt out of vaccine requirements.

The strain of the virus implicated in the most recent outbreak is the same virus that last year sickened 50,000 people and killed 110 in the Philippines. While California health officials have confirmed the strain, they still have not figured out how it made its way to the popular amusement park.

Here, we'll provide you with some helpful information about measles so you can make the best educated decision for your family.

Measles is a highly contagious virus that can be spread through coughing and sneezing. Like other viruses, it can't be cured with antibiotics, but it can be prevented with a vaccine, which helps the body build an immunity. The measles vaccine is part of the measles, mumps and rubella (MMR) combination. Children should receive their first dose between 12 and 15 months of age, but can get it as early as six months if they will be traveling outside the country where the virus is still common. The second MMR vaccine is given between four and six years of age.

Those who aren't immune to the virus can become infected if they breathe measles-contaminated air or touch infected surfaces and then touch their eyes, noses or mouths. The virus can live in the air or on a surface for up to two hours after an infected person has coughed or sneezed. The virus also has a fairly large window of time where an infected person can make others sick. The virus can spread from four days before to four days after its telltale rash appears.

The Centers for Disease Control (CDC) says that one dose of the vaccine is about 93 percent effective against the virus while two doses increases to 97 percent.


While measles is known for its red rash, it can take three to five days from the time of infection for it to appear. Measles typically starts with high fever, cough, runny nose and red, watery eyes. Two to three days after these symptoms begin, tiny white spots called Koplik spots may appear inside the mouth.

A rash will break out about three to five days after the onset of symptoms and begin as flat red spots that appear on the face as the hairline. The rash will spread downward to the neck, trunk, arms, legs and feet. Small raised bumps may also appear on the top of the flat red spots, which may join together as it spreads. When the rash appears the infected person may see a fever spike to more than 104 degrees.

After a few days, the fever subsides and the rash fades.

Measles is more than a minor inconvenience. About one quarter of people who become infected will require hospitalization. About 1 in 1,000 people will experience brain swelling that leads to brain damage and even with the best care, 1 to 2 in 1,000 people will die.

Those who can't be Vaccinated

While the CDC and other health professionals urge vaccination, there are people who cannot get the vaccine often due to age or medical conditions. Infants, for example are generally not vaccinated until at least their first birthday. Similarly, pregnant women should wait until at least a month after giving birth before receiving the vaccine. People with immune system disorders or have undergone cancer treatments may have to delay the vaccine or forgo it altogether.

These people require herd immunity to keep them safe. Herd immunity is when someone who is unvaccinated is protected from a disease by the vaccinated people around them. For example, an unvaccinated newborn is protected from measles because the people around her are vaccinated and likely won't catch the virus and then infect her.

More information about measles can be found on the CDC website.