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A Blog from Your Kaiser Permanente Pediatricians in Northern California

Measles in dictionary

What Parents Need to Know About Measles

I was talking with my mom the other night about measles. When she was young, it was a common childhood illness. I asked if it seemed scary. “Well, yes,” she said. “Kids died from it – and there was nothing a mother could do to protect them.” She was exactly right.

Measles, a viral illness thought to be eliminated in the U.S. in 2000, is flaring up again with outbreaks in several states. New measles infections can be traced back to travelers (Americans or foreign visitors) returning to the U.S. from areas with outbreaks.

Measles spreads through the air when an infected person coughs or sneezes. It stays alive for 2 hours after an infected person leaves a room.

It’s so contagious that if one person has it, 9 out of 10 unprotected people close to them will also become infected.

Measles puts anyone not protected at risk. But this time there’s something we can do to protect our children. We can vaccinate them. The measles vaccine was introduced in 1963.

To understand why measles is so scary, let’s look at the numbers:

  • 3 to 4 million people in the U.S. were infected with measles each year before a vaccine existed. An estimated 500 of them died, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.
  • 1 in 4 people in the U.S. who get measles will be hospitalized, approximately.
  • 1 out of every 1,000 people in the U.S. with measles will develop encephalitis, which frequently leads to permanent brain damage.
  • 1 to 2 out of 1,000 people in the U.S. with measles will die, even with the best possible medical care.
  • 19 cases of measles per 1 million persons are reported each year worldwide – about 90,000 will die from the disease.

Stages

Measles generally has 2 stages.

Early stage

Symptoms usually begin 7 to 14 days after exposure. These include:

  • Fever (100.4°F or higher).
  • Cough, runny nose, and sore throat.
  • Red eyes that may be sensitive to light.
  • Small grey-white spots in the mouth starting 2 to 3 days after other symptoms.

Later stage

Three to 5 days after early symptoms appear, late stage symptoms will appear, including:

  • Red rash that starts on the face then spreads down the rest of the body. It may be itchy.
  • High fever, over 103°F (39°C).

An infected person is contagious from 4 days before to 4 days after the rash appears, and should be isolated at home during this time.

If you or your child has symptoms of measles, call your doctor. It’s important to call before you come in so we can check your child’s immunization status and decide if an office visit is needed. If so, your doctor’s office will make special arrangements to evaluate your child without putting other patients and medical staff at risk.

There’s no treatment or cure for measles once you get it. Most people feel better within 2 weeks after symptoms first begin.

But complications from measles can be severe and include pneumonia, brain swelling (encephalitis), and permanent deafness. Measles can even be deadly.

So prevention is the key. The vaccine is safe and very effective – 2 doses provide life-long immunity for 98 percent of vaccinated people. The vaccine is given in 2 doses:

  • The first at 12 through 15 months of age.
  • The second at 4 through 6 years of age.

If your family is traveling abroad or to an area with an active outbreak, the vaccine recommendations are a little different:

  • If your baby is 6 through 11 months old, they should receive 1 dose of MMR vaccine before departure.
  • If your child is 12 months of age or older, they’ll need 2 doses of MMR vaccine (separated by at least 28 days) before departure.

Until the age of 6 months, a baby is protected in large part by immunity passed on from their mother in utero (if the mother was vaccinated or previously had measles). Then, as that immunity decreases, the vaccine is most effective if it’s given at 12 months of age.

Decades of research into measles has produced clear facts about measles. But there’s one number for parents to focus on for reassurance and guidance: the number 2. Two doses of vaccine will protect your child.

Find more resources for parents

The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention:
Measles

American Academy of Pediatrics:
Protecting Your Baby During a Measles Outbreak
How to Protect Your Children During a Measles Outbreak

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