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What is Measles?

Mary McMahon
Updated Mar 03, 2024
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Measles is an acute viral infection accompanied by a distinctive red rash. It is considered to be one of the most highly contagious diseases in the world, and therefore it represents a significant public health threat. Fortunately, measles is preventable through vaccination; sadly, many developing nations have incomplete or imperfect vaccination programs, and it is still a leading cause of death among children in these regions.

Members of the ancient world recognized and wrote about measles; the name for the disease is derived from a Germanic word for “spot,” a reference to the dark, spotty rash which is characteristic of the illness. The condition is not related to German measles, better known as rubella. Infection is spread through droplets which are coughed, sneezed, or breathed out. Since the virus is airborne, it attacks the respiratory system first, but it doesn't stop there; ultimately, the entire body will be overrun until the disease has run its course.

A measles infection on its own is not inherently dangerous, although it can be uncomfortable and unpleasant. Within two weeks of exposure, the patient will develop a fever and a runny nose, along with a cough and red eyes. Shortly thereafter, a red rash will appear, slowly covering the whole body. Within around five days, the rash subsides, leaving flaky, crackling skin behind. The patient is still infectious for around a week after the rash disappears, but after a case of the measles, the patient will be forever immune.

The risk lies in the complications associated with the illness. While the immune system is busy fighting the virus, opportunistic infections may set in throughout the body. Respiratory infections are extremely common, and in some cases, the patient may experience extreme symptoms, such as encephalitis, a swelling of the brain which can be fatal. The public health risk in measles lies in these complications, which can overwhelm health services if a large population contracts the disease.

Vaccinations for measles became available in 1963, and many children around the world are routinely vaccinated. If a case emerges in a population like a college, the entire population is often re-vaccinated, to ensure that the disease will not spread. When someone is diagnosed with measles, he or she usually tries to keep inside, so that the condition will not spread. The patient must be kept hydrated and warm, and a doctor may monitor the patient for complications to ensure that the virus runs its course smoothly.

The Health Board is dedicated to providing accurate and trustworthy information. We carefully select reputable sources and employ a rigorous fact-checking process to maintain the highest standards. To learn more about our commitment to accuracy, read our editorial process.
Mary McMahon
By Mary McMahon

Ever since she began contributing to the site several years ago, Mary has embraced the exciting challenge of being a The Health Board researcher and writer. Mary has a liberal arts degree from Goddard College and spends her free time reading, cooking, and exploring the great outdoors.

Discussion Comments
By wander — On Jun 11, 2011

Does anyone feel that things like measles vaccinations should be mandatory, with serious penalties for refusing?

I think with that with any infection that is this contagious that parents should be required by law to vaccinate their children if they want them in the public school system. If they don't get their shot, they shouldn't be allowed to attend school.

If more and more parents refuse to vaccinate their children the chance of us having series outbreaks rises. I wouldn't want to put a stranger's child at risk just so mine could dodge a needle. I think parents need to be responsible for assuring their kids don’t carry infections when it could have been easily avoided.

By Sara007 — On Jun 09, 2011

For a lot of parents choosing whether or not to vaccinate your child is becoming more of a hotly contested issue. There are those that believe that vaccinating against things like the measles prevents a child's immune system from becoming stronger.

Unfortunately, measles is a very nasty thing to get and is not easily controlled once it starts to spread, as it is highly contagious. Many of the dangers of measles come from the complications that can set in, such as infection and pneumonia. Pneumonia is estimated to set in once for every ten measles infections and can be deadly.

By robbie21 — On Jun 09, 2011

@MrsWinslow - I agree that it's too bad there's not more flexibility. People have the right to choose not to vaccinate their children, but I hope that before they do, they will consider that they're making a decision not just to risk their own children, but to put everyone else at risk, too.

Vaccines don't work for everyone (a small percentage will get vaccinated, but turn out not to be immune), and some people can't get vaccines because of allergies or a weakened immune system. These people rely on "herd immunity" for protection. With fewer people vaccinating, the US is seeing a big increase in measles outbreaks. And Europe is doing even worse. Let's not slide into the bad old days!

By MrsWinslow — On Jun 09, 2011

I believe that vaccination against measles is really, really important, which is why I think it's a shame that the measles vaccine is now available only in the MMR combination shot (measles, mumps, rubella). All three are live vaccines, too.

There are a couple of problems there. One is that some fully vaccinating parents prefer to give their children only one live vaccine at a time, but that option is no longer available. (It was recommended in the Sears Vaccine Book.)

Another problem is that people who need protection against only one of the diseases have to get the entire shot. For instance, if a pregnant woman has a low titer for rubella, she'll be revaccinated after she gives birth. Now she has to have all three. And, like the article mentioned, some people just need a measles booster because they may have been exposed. I wish the drug companies would give people options!

Mary McMahon
Mary McMahon

Ever since she began contributing to the site several years ago, Mary has embraced the exciting challenge of being a...

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