What is measles?
Measles is a highly infectious viral disease that was, historically, quite common. It is a particularly unpleasant illness that can lead to serious complications in childhood, including meningitis and pneumonia, both of which can be fatal. For most people, measles lasts between 7 and 10 days.
With the advent of the Measles Mumps and Rubella (MMR) vaccine administered in infancy, the commonality of measles had waned. Or at least it had. Doubts cast on the MMR vaccine in recent years have led to a slight reduction in vaccinations, and therefore a resurgence of measles cases in the UK.
What should I look out for?
Early signs of measles are fever, coughs and cold-like symptoms, as well as conjunctivitis. White or grey Koplik’s spots might be visible in the cheeks, too. After a few days, the characteristic measles rash appears – a bright red and itchy rash that starts on the head and neck before spreading to the rest of the body. Roughly 4 days after first appearing, the bright red hue of the rash shifts to a darker red or brown hue.
Once measles is contracted, complications due to bacterial infection ranging from middle ear infections to pneumonia and meningitis can arise.
In summary, the symptoms to look out for are as follows:
- A runny or blocked nose
- Sore, watery eyes that may be sensitive to light
- Swollen eyelids
- High temperature or fever reaching 40ºC
- Greyish-white spots inside the cheeks
- Aches and pains
- A loss of appetite
- Tiredness, irritability and a lack of energy
How infectious is it?
Symptoms will start to develop 10-14 days after you have been first exposed to the rubeola virus. As well as being easily transmitted from person to person by coughing, sneezing or direct contact with bodily secretions, the virus can remain in the air where an infected person has been for two hours – making it highly infectious.
How can I reduce my risk of contracting measles?
There are three main strategies you can employ to reduce your risk of contracting measles:
- Accepting the MMR vaccination when it is offered to you. The vaccination significantly reduces your risk of contracting measles, so you are much more vulnerable without it.
- Avoiding travel to developing countries. Measles is inherently more common in countries where the MMR vaccination is less readily available, such as in developing countries.
- Staying on top of a vitamin A deficiency. Subsisting on a diet that is lacking in vitamin A makes you more likely to develop severe measles symptoms and complications.
Should I go into work with measles?
Avoid work or school for at least 4 days after the rash has appeared in order to reduce transmission to others.
When should I see a doctor?
If you think you have been exposed to the measles virus, or start exhibiting the early symptoms mentioned above – the strongest indicator being white or grey Koplik’s spots inside the cheeks – it is very important to seek medical advice sooner rather than later, or risk complications arising.
Additional symptoms that might be an indicator of a measles complication include:
- Difficulty breathing
- Chest pain
- Coughing up blood
Seek medical advice quickly if any of these symptoms are exhibited. Antibiotics may be administered to treat a complicating bacterial infection, and in severe cases, hospitalisation will be recommended.
How is measles treated?
Measles is a viral infection and therefore, no active treatment against it is available. That said, there are steps you can take to alleviate some of the symptoms that you will experience in measles. Paracetamol and Ibuprofen will relieve the aches and pains associated with measles, as well as help combat a fever. Staying well hydrated helps too.
For babies under 6 months of age, unvaccinated pregnant women or people with weakened immune systems, a Human Normal Immunoglobulin injection may be administered, the contents of which are a concentrated dose of antibodies against the measles virus. An injection of this type can be given within 6 days of known exposure to the measles virus.