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What is Measles?

Measles is a viral infection that starts in the respiratory system.

How is Measles Transmitted?

Measles is a highly contagious virus that lives in the nose and throat mucus of an infected person. It spreads to others through coughing and sneezing and can live for up to two hours in air.

If other people breathe the contaminated air or touch the infected surface and 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.

Infected people can spread measles to others from four days before through four days after the rash appears.

Measles is a disease of humans; measles virus is not spread by any other animal species.

Signs and Symptoms

Measles symptoms appear 7 to 14 days after contact with the virus and typically include high fever, cough, runny nose, and watery eyes. Measles rash appears 3 to 5 days after the first symptoms.

7 – 14 days after a measles infection: symptoms show

Measles isn’t just a little rash. Measles can be dangerous, especially for babies and young children. Measles typically begins with:

  • high fever (may spike to higher than 104°)
  • cough
  • runny nose (coryza)
  • red, watery eyes (conjunctivitis)
2-3 days after symptoms begin: Koplik spots

Tiny white spots (Koplik spots) may appear inside the mouth two to three days after symptoms begin.

3-5 days after symptoms begin: measles rash

Three to five days after symptoms begin, a rash breaks out. 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. As the rash develops, small raised bumps may also appear on top of the flat red spots, and the spots may become joined together as they spread from the head to the rest of the body. When the rash appears, a person’s fever may spike to more than 104° Fahrenheit.

Measles can be dangerous, especially for immune-compromised individuals. Call your doctor immediately if you think you have been exposed to measles.

Diagnosis and Treatment

If you suspect that you have measles or have been exposed to someone with measles, contact the Health Center immediately. After examination by a provider, a blood test can be ordered to check for the measles virus.

There’s no specific treatment for measles. Unlike bacterial infections, viral infections aren’t sensitive to antibiotics. The virus and symptoms typically disappear in about two or three weeks.

There are some interventions available for people who may have been exposed to the virus. These can help prevent an infection or lessen its severity. Discuss options with your healthcare provider.

Measles and Travel

In the United States, measles cases result from both domestic and international travel. Measles remains a common disease in many parts of the world, including Europe, the Middle East, Asia, the Americas, and Africa. Since measles is still common in many countries, unvaccinated travelers may bring measles to the U.S., and it can spread. Unfortunately, measles outbreaks in the United States are becoming increasingly common. Protect yourself, your family, and your community with the MMR vaccine, especially before traveling internationally or traveling within the United States to an area with an ongoing outbreak.

The Health Center offers travel health services to students preparing for international travel. Please check your insurance policy to see what services are covered and schedule a Travel Health appointment at the Health Center 3 to 4 months prior to departure.

Find out more about travel health services at Tulane University.

Measles Vaccine

The most effective way to protect yourself from measles is through the MMR vaccine. In most cases this vaccine is administered in two doses during childhood. However, it's not too late for college students to get vaccinated. Instead of receiving the two doses years apart as young children do, college-aged individuals can receive the second dose as soon as 28 days after receiving the first.