Measles is a highly contagious virus that lives in the nose and throat mucus of an infected person. It spreads when infected people cough or sneeze, and droplets reach other people, surfaces, or the air. (The virus can live for up to 2 hours in air where an infected person coughed or sneezed.) If other people breathe the contaminated air or touch the infected surface, then touch their eyes, noses, or mouths, they can become infected.
Measles is so contagious that if one person has it, up to 90% of the people close to that person who are not immune will also become infected.
Complications and Symptoms
Measles can cause serious health complications, especially in children younger than 5 years of age. There is no way to tell in advance the severity of the symptoms your child will experience. According to the US Centers for Disease Control and Prevention:
- About 1 in 4 people in the U.S. who get measles will be hospitalized
- 1 out of every 1,000 people with measles will develop brain swelling, which could lead to brain damage
- 1 or 2 out of 1,000 people with measles will die, even with the best care
Some of the more common measles symptoms include: fever, rash, runny nose, and red eyes.
The best way to protect yourself and your child from measles is to get vaccinated with the Measles, Mumps, and Rubella (MMR) vaccine. One dose of measles vaccine is about 93% effective at preventing measles if exposed to the virus. Two doses are about 97% effective. Measles vaccine does not cause measles illness.
Recommendations for MMR Vaccination
- Children: Two doses.
- First dose at between 12 and 15 months old
- Second dose at 4 through 6 years of age
- Adults: At least one dose of MMR vaccine. Certain adults need two doses of MMR, including: college students, health care workers, international travelers, and persons at high risk for measles complications. Adults born in the United States before 1957 are considered immune to measles because of past exposures, but in situations where these adults are likely be exposed to measles, they may benefit from another dose of MMR vaccine.
Since measles is still common in many countries, unvaccinated travelers can get measles in other countries and bring it into the U.S. and spread it to others. Make sure you and your child are up to date on your MMR vaccine, including before you travel internationally.
If you are unsure whether you were vaccinated, check with your physician.