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Measles

13-minute read

Key facts

  • Measles is a very contagious viral illness.
  • You are likely to be immune if you are vaccinated against measles, or have already had measles.
  • Measles causes fever, cough, red eyes and a red, blotchy rash.
  • Measles can lead to serious complications including ear infections, pneumonia (lung infection) and encephalitis (inflammation of the brain).
  • Vaccination is the best way to prevent measles.

What is measles?

Measles is a very contagious viral illness. It’s best known for its characteristic red blotchy rash. Measles can be very serious and can lead to hospitalisation and even death.

Measles was very common in Australia before measles vaccination was added to the childhood immunisation schedule in the mid-1970s. In 2014, Australia was declared measles free. Sometimes outbreaks still occur when travellers are infected while overseas and bring measles back to Australia.

This page focuses on advice for adults and children older than 5 years of age. Visit the Pregnancy, Birth and Baby website to learn more about:

What are the symptoms of measles?

The symptoms of measles usually appear about 10 days after exposure to an infected person.

The most well-known symptom of measles is a blotchy red rash, but this is not usually the first symptom.

Measles usually starts as a flu-like illness lasting for between 2 and 4 days with symptoms that include:

On days 3 to 7 of the illness, the rash appears. It’s usually red and blotchy, but not itchy. A measles rash generally starts on your head and then spreads down to the rest of the body. It usually lasts 4 to 7 days.

Measles rash
Measles rash has red, slightly raised spots and may be blotchy but it’s not itchy.

CHECK YOUR SYMPTOMS — Use the Symptom Checker and find out if you need to seek medical help.

What causes measles?

Measles is caused by a virus.

How is measles spread?

Measles is spread through contact with an infected person. This may be from:

  • person-to-person contact
  • coughing and sneezing

Measles virus particles can stay in a room and infect others for up to 2 hours. The virus can be in the air or on surfaces.

Measles is very contagious. You are usually contagious from around the day before you feel unwell until 4 days after your rash appears.

Up to 9 in every 10 people who are not immune to measles will get measles from an infected person. You will be immune against measles if you have:

  • been vaccinated against measles
  • previously been sick with measles

Who is at risk of getting measles?

Anyone of any age can catch measles if they are not immune.

People with weakened immune systems are more likely to:

  • catch measles if exposed
  • have serious illness with complications

Measles and pregnancy

If you are planning a pregnancy, see your doctor for a pre-conception health check. This usually includes making sure that you are immune to infections like measles.

Catching measles during pregnancy increases your risk of miscarriage or preterm labour.

Measles vaccinations should not be given during pregnancy.

When should I see my doctor?

If you think you may have measles, you should call your doctor straight away. You should also speak with your doctor if you have been in contact with someone with measles.

Do not go to the clinic since you don’t want to infect people in the waiting room. Rather, call your doctor and they will let you know the safest way to see them. Ask your doctor about the possibility of a home visit or telehealth appointment.

Measles can be a very serious illness, with some people needing to go to hospital.

Your doctor will also advise you on how to best protect other people in your household.

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If you think you have measles, it is important to stay home to stop the spread of infection. Your doctor will tell you when you can go back to school or work.

Measles is a notifiable disease. This means that the doctor who diagnoses measles needs to report the case to the local health authorities. They will take steps to prevent or control an outbreak. Since measles is very contagious, this usually involves a process called contact tracing. Contact tracers will speak with you to identify anyone who has had close contact with you recently.

Other symptoms may develop if the infection leads to complications. If you have measles and new symptoms appear or the current symptoms worsen, speak to your doctor.

How is measles diagnosed?

Your doctor can diagnose measles by asking you about your symptoms and looking at your rash. They may also ask:

  • if you’ve been in contact with someone infected with measles
  • about your vaccination history

If your doctor thinks you have measles, they may refer you for blood tests. The results of these tests can confirm the diagnosis.

How is measles treated?

There is no specific medicine or treatment available to treat measles.

There are things that you can do to try to ease your symptoms at home:

  • get plenty of rest
  • drink lots of fluids
  • take paracetamol to relieve any symptoms of fever — be sure to read the instructions on the packet

Antibiotics will not help you recover from measles because the illness is caused by a virus, not bacteria.

If your symptoms are severe or you experience complications, you many need to be treated in hospital.

What happens if I’ve been in contact with someone with measles?

If you have had close contact with an infected person and aren’t immune to measles you will be offered treatment. This is called post-exposure prophylaxis and reduces your chance of getting sick.

Post-exposure prophylaxis for measles usually involves vaccination. If you can’t be vaccinated, you may be given a medicine containing antibodies against measles. For these to work they need to be given within 72 hours of exposure.

How can I prevent measles?

Vaccination is the best way to prevent measles.

The measles vaccine is given as part of a combination vaccination for:

Both are very effective and have similar side effects. Your doctor can advise which vaccine is right for you.

In Australia, 2 measles vaccinations are 99% effective at preventing infection by the virus.

Vaccination against measles is strongly recommended for non-immune people:

  • who work in childcare
  • who work in aged care
  • who work in healthcare
  • who are travelling

The measles vaccination should not be given to:

  • pregnant women
  • people with a weakened immune system

You should avoid pregnancy for 28 days after vaccination. So, you should use contraception for at least a month after your second vaccination.

At what age is vaccination recommended?

The vaccine is usually given at 12 and 18 months of age.

Adults: Vaccination is recommended for those born in or since 1966 who have not already been vaccinated against measles.

How many doses? 2 doses
How is the vaccine administered? The vaccine is given by injection.
Is it free?

Measles vaccination is free on the National Immunisation Program for:

  • people under 20 years of age
  • refugees of any age entering Australia

Your doctor may charge a consultation fee for your visit. You can find your nearest bulk billing (no fee) GP clinic using the healthdirect Service Finder tool.

Common side effects

Vaccination against measles is very safe. Side effects are generally mild.

Side effects of measles vaccination are much less common after the second dose of vaccine.


Complications of measles infection

Measles complications are more common in people who are:

  • immunocompromised (where the immune system is not working as well as it should)
  • poorly nourished

Complications may include:

About 1 in 10 people who get measles suffer from complications. Complications can cause life-long effects or, sometimes, death.

Resources and support

For more information about immunisation in Australia, visit the Department of Health Immunisation website.

If you need to know more about measles or need advice on what to do next, call healthdirect on 1800 022 222. A registered nurse is available, 24 hours, 7 days a week (known as NURSE-ON-CALL in Victoria).

Learn more here about the development and quality assurance of healthdirect content.

Last reviewed: July 2023


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