What Are the Signs and Symptoms of Measles?

The first measles vaccine was developed in 1963 and its use led to a quick drop in measles cases in the United States.

In fact, as most people know, the endemic spread of measles was declared eliminated in the United States in 2000.

What does that mean?

A typical case of measles, as described in 1920, doesn't sound very mild or marvelous as some folks claim it to be.
A typical case of measles, as described in 1920, doesn’t sound very mild or marvelous as some folks claim it to be.

For one thing, it means that many people in the United States have never actually seen anyone with measles.

What Are the Signs and Symptoms of Measles?

As we are seeing more and more measles cases each year, it makes it important for everyone to learn how to recognize what measles looks like. Measles is so contagious, that missing just one case can lead to a lot of other people getting exposed unnecessarily and can keep an outbreak going.

So what does measles look like?

Call before you go to the ER or to see your doctor if you think your child has measles so that you don't put others at risk.
Call before you go to the ER or to see your doctor if you think your child has measles so that you don’t put others at risk.

After being exposed, kids with measles will develop:

  • a high fever
  • cough and/or runny nose
  • red, watery eyes with photophobia (dislike of bright light)
  • sore throat
  • irritability
  • decreased appetite

That sounds like many other viral infections that kids get though, which is why measles is so hard to diagnose, at least at the beginning stages of the illness, when kids only have the first signs of measles – the fever, cough, runny nose, and conjunctivitis.

Koplik spots, small gray-white spots in your mouth, are another clue that a child might have measles. They can develop on the second or third day of fever.

Next, after having the high fever for 3 to 5 days, kids develop a worsening fever and the classic measles rash. It is important to note that you are contagious well before you get the rash though, up to about four days before the rash develops, providing plenty of chances to expose others before you ever know you have measles.

“It usually begins as flat red spots that appear on the face at the hairline and spread downward to the neck, trunk, arms, legs, and feet. Small raised bumps may also appear on top of the flat red spots. The spots may become joined together as they spread from the head to the rest of the body.”

Measles Signs and Symptoms

While many diseases have a fever with or followed by a rash, it is very characteristic of measles that the fever continues for a few more days as the child develops the rash.

“You’ll usually feel most ill on the first or second day after the rash develops.”

Measles Symptoms

This is when most kids get diagnosed, typically with laboratory confirmation.

Unfortunately, because of the high fever and irritability, they may have sought medical attention a few times and could have exposed a lot of people already, especially as you continue to be contagious until you have had the rash for at least four days.

“After a few days, the fever subsides and the rash fades.”

Measles Signs and Symptoms

All together, these classic measles symptoms typically last about a week. As the rash fades, parents might notice staining and then a fine desquamation (skin peeling).

Of course, if any complications develop, the symptoms can last much longer.

What complications? Remember, measles was once called a harmless killer

Complications of measles can include:

  • ear infections
  • diarrhea
  • croup
  • pneumonia
  • seizures
  • encephalitis
  • myocarditis

And tragically, some kids don’t survive having measles.

“Furthermore, the risk of contracting other infections or dying remains high for several months after recovery from acute measles infection.”

Treating Measles in Children

And although most do survive the acute infection, we know that these kids are still at risk for getting other infections in the next few months and are at a later risk for SSPE.

Get vaccinated. Stop the outbreaks. There is no good reason that our kids should have to get measles today.

More on the Signs and Symptoms of Measles

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