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Measles

7-minute read

What is measles?

Measles is a highly infectious disease caused by a virus that is spread from person to person through droplets in the air. It can lead to serious complications such as ear infections, diarrhoea and pneumonia.

Measles is usually far more serious than chickenpox, German measles (rubella) or mumps. About 1 in every 1,000 people with measles develops encephalitis, an infection of the brain that can lead to permanent brain damage or death.

Measles is rare in Australia thanks to the MMR vaccination program, although it can still be brought into the country by people entering Australia from overseas.

What are the symptoms of measles?

  • Measles begins like a bad cold and cough, with sore, watery eyes.
  • The person will become gradually more unwell, with a temperature.
  • You might notice tiny white marks, known as 'Koplik's spots', on the inside of the cheeks and at the back of the mouth.
  • A rash appears after the third or fourth day. The spots are red and slightly raised. They may be blotchy, but not itchy. The rash begins behind the ears and spreads to the face and neck, then the rest of the body.
  • The illness usually lasts for about 10 days.
Image of measles rash
Measles rash looks like red, slightly raised spots and may be blotchy but not itchy.

CHECK YOUR SYMPTOMS — Use our rashes and skin problems Symptom Checker and find out if you need to seek medical help.

What causes measles?

Measles is caused by a type of virus known as a paramyxovirus. This kind of virus spreads when an infected person coughs or sneezes droplets into the air. Measles is so contagious that about 9 in 10 people who come into contact with the virus will catch it if they are not immunised.

You can catch measles by breathing in these droplets or, if the droplets have settled on a surface, by touching the surface and then placing your hands near your nose or mouth. The measles virus can survive on surfaces for a few hours.

Once inside your body, the virus multiplies in the back of your throat and lungs before spreading throughout your body, including in your respiratory system and the skin.

When should I see my doctor?

If you, or your child, have symptoms of measles, contact your doctor. Let the clinic know about your symptoms.

Staff might suggest a home doctor visit, or ask you to visit the clinic at the end of the day. This is to avoid spreading the highly infectious disease to other people. If you are diagnosed while visiting a clinic, staff might isolate you in a separate room for the same reason.

Anyone who suspects they might have measles should stay home and not attend school, childcare or work.

FIND A HEALTH SERVICE — Our Service Finder can help you find doctors, pharmacies, hospitals and other health services.

How is measles diagnosed?

Your doctor should be able to diagnose measles from the combination of symptoms you may have, such as the characteristic rash and the small spots inside the mouth.

Doctors must notify the Government of all reported and suspected cases of measles. They will also notify a child's school if necessary.

Your doctor might order a blood test to confirm measles.

How is measles treated?

There is no specific antiviral treatment for measles, although complications may be treated with antibiotics. There are, however, things you can do at home to ease the symptoms:

  • Make sure you, or your child, get plenty of rest and fluids (warm drinks may ease the cough).
  • Paracetamol can relieve discomfort and fever.
  • Petroleum jelly (such as Vaseline) around the lips will help protect the skin.
  • If the person's eyelids are crusty, gently wash them with warm water.

If the person is having trouble breathing, is coughing a lot or seems drowsy, get medical attention immediately. A serious case of measles or complications from measles may need to be treated in hospital.

How long is a person with measles infectious for?

A person with measles is infectious for 24 hours before the rash appears, and for about 4 days after the rash appears. The illness usually lasts about 10 days.

Most people who are not immune to measles and who have close contact with someone who is infected will catch it.

Should I keep my child home from school?

Here's a list of common childhood illnesses, including measles, and their recommended exclusion periods.

How is measles prevented?

Vaccination is your best protection against measles.

In Australia, children are routinely immunised against measles as part of the National Immunisation Program. The vaccine is given in combination with the rubella and mumps vaccine — known as the 'MMR' vaccine.

Children receive their first dose of MMR at 12 months, then a second dose at 18 months (called the MMRV, which includes the varicella — chicken pox — vaccine). If the MMRV dose is not received at 18 months, MMR is given again at 4 years.

Immunising your child with the recommended 2 doses provides them with 99% immunity against measles. If your child isn't immunised and you think they have been exposed to the virus, it's important to see your doctor as soon as possible — and within 72 hours.

Measles vaccine

This table explains how the measles vaccine is given, who should get it, and whether it is on the National Immunisation Program Schedule. Some diseases can be prevented with different vaccines, so talk to your doctor about which one is appropriate for you or your child.

What age is it recommended?

At 12 months and 18 months.

Anyone older who has not had 2 doses of the vaccine previously.

How many doses are required?2
How is it administered?

Injection

Is it free? Free for children at 12 and 18 months, and at 4 if they didn't receive both doses.

Free for people under 20 years old, refugees and other humanitarian entrants of any age.

For everyone else, there may be a cost for this vaccine.

Find out more on the Department of Health website and the National Immunisation Program Schedule, and ask your doctor if you are eligible for additional free vaccines based on your situation or location.

Common side effects The vaccine is very safe. Possible side effects include fever, rash and feeling unwell.

Vaccinations for adults

Adults born between 1966 and 1994 may not be fully vaccinated against measles. Most children during this time would have received at least one dose of the vaccine, but may not have received the follow-up dose of the vaccine that is now recommended.

People born before 1966 are generally considered to be naturally immune to measles because of the high likelihood they had the virus during childhood.

If you were born during or after 1966 and are not sure if you have had 2 doses of the measles vaccine, see your doctor about a catch-up vaccination. Most states and territories provide these catch-up vaccinations for free.

Resources and support

  • If you need to know more about measles, or need advice on what to do next, call healthdirect on 1800 022 222 to speak with a registered nurse, 24 hours, 7 days a week.

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

Last reviewed: December 2019


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