I am asked every day by well-meaning parents how to protect their child from measles. Some of these parents have vaccinated their children, and some have not. I suspect that with the growing number of unvaccinated children, the number of measles cases will rise each year.
What is measles?
Measles is caused by a virus most common in the winter and spring seasons. It is passed through contaminated droplets that spread through the air and land on nearby surfaces. It is easy to catch measles by inhaling the droplets or touching your face, mouth or eyes after contacting contaminated surfaces.
Measles usually begins with a fever that is followed by conjunctivitis (pink eye), and nasal congestion. The measles rash most often starts on the face and upper back and spreads down the body toward the toes. When it fades it fades in the same order that it appeared.
How contagious is it?
Measles is very contagious. Measles is contagious even four days before the rash starts and four days after the rash is gone. The measles virus lives in the mucus of the nose and throat, therefore when the child sneezes or coughs, it spreads into the air. Your child is more likely to develop measles if they have not been vaccinated, have a weak immune system, or you are traveling to countries where vaccination is less common.
Most children that get measles do well with minimal illness. However, having measles does increase your risk for ear infections, pneumonia, and diarrhea. In rare instances, children can develop encephalitis–an inflammation of the brain. Though death from measles is uncommon, it can happen.
How to make the diagnosis?
If your child is not vaccinated with the measles, mumps, rubella vaccine (MMR), he or she is at risk of being infected with measles. If you are concerned about measles infection, please see your doctor. Your doctor may order blood tests or viral swabs from the nose or throat. Before you see your doctor, please inform him or her that your child may have contracted measles. This will help the doctor’s office ensure that people at risk, such as children with a weak immune system or babies who have not yet been vaccinated, will not be exposed to measles as well.
There is no specific treatment for measles, as it is a virus. We provide supportive care. You can give your child acetaminophen or ibuprofen for fever care. Bed rest and fluids are also important.
Avoiding children that are not immunized and who are at risk of infection with measles can help prevent its spread. However, as measles is contagious even before the symptoms appear, it is hard to know who is ‘at risk’. The best way to prevent measles is through vaccination with MMR.
What is MMR? MMR is a live attenuated vaccine (meaning it will not cause infection in humans) for measles mumps and rubella, containing inactive versions of these viruses that provide immunity against the illnesses. The MMR vaccine schedule varies within countries, states and provinces, but it is typically given between 12-18 months of age and another at 18 months – 4 to 6 years of age can also help prevent its spread. As more and more people choose not to vaccinate with the measles mumps rubella vaccine due to concerns of the MMR vaccine and autism risk and exposure to chemicals, measles has become more common. Please talk to your doctor about your vaccine choices.
To read more about vaccine side effects, click here.