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Measles is a highly infectious viral illness that can be very unpleasant and sometimes leads to serious complications. It’s now uncommon in the UK because of the effectiveness of vaccination.

Anyone can get measles if they haven’t been vaccinated or they haven’t had it before, although it’s most common in young children.
The infection usually clears in around 7 to 10 days.

Symptoms of measles
The initial symptoms of measles develop around 10 days after your child is infected. These can include:

  • Cold-like symptoms, such as a runny nose, sneezing, and a cough
  • Sore, red eyes that may be sensitive to light
  • A high temperature (fever), which may reach around 40C (104F)
  • Small greyish-white spots on the inside of the cheeks

A few days later, a red-brown blotchy rash will appear. This usually starts on the head or upper neck, before spreading outwards to the rest of the body.

image of child with spotty rash

Is measles serious?
Measles can be unpleasant, but will usually pass in about 7 to 10 days without causing any further problems.
Once your child has had measles, their body builds up resistance (immunity) to the virus and it’s highly unlikely they’ll get it again.
However, measles can, sometimes, lead to serious and potentially life-threatening complications. These include infections of the lungs (pneumonia) and brain (encephalitis).

How measles is spread
The measles virus is contained in the millions of tiny droplets that come out of the nose and mouth when an infected person coughs or sneezes.
You can easily catch measles by breathing in these droplets or, if the droplets have settled on a surface, by touching the surface and then placing your hands near your nose or mouth. The virus can survive on surfaces for a few hours.
People with measles are infectious from when the symptoms develop until about four days after the rash first appears.

How measles can be prevented
Measles can be prevented by having the measles, mumps and rubella (MMR) vaccine.
This is given in two doses as part of the NHS childhood vaccination programme. The first dose is given when your child is around 13 months old and a second dose is given before your child starts school.
Older children can be vaccinated at any age if they haven’t been fully vaccinated before. Ask your GP about the vaccination if your child hasn’t had it. .

Treating measles
There are several things you can do to help relieve your child’s symptoms and reduce the risk of spreading the infection, including:

  • Giving paracetamol or ibuprofen to relieve fever, aches and pains – aspirin should not be given to children under 16 years old
  • Ensure they drink plenty of water to avoid dehydration
  • Close the curtains to help reduce light sensitivity
  • Clean their eyes with damp cotton wool
  • Ensure they stay off school for at least four days from when the rash first appears

In severe cases, especially if there are complications, your child may need to be admitted to hospital for treatment.

How common is measles?
The UK lost its ‘measles free’ status with the World Health Organisation in 2019 following a drop in vaccination rates of the highly effective MMR vaccine and the following rise in cases.
Measles is common in many countries around the world and large measles outbreaks can occur across Europe.
We will continue to see measles cases in the UK and anyone who has not had two doses of the MMR vaccine can catch it.
In 2016 there were over 500 measles cases in England, many in teenagers and young people attending summer festivals who had missed out on their MMR vaccine in childhood.

When to see your GP
You should contact your GP as soon as possible if you suspect that your child may have measles.
Phone before your visit as your GP surgery may need to make arrangements to reduce the risk of spreading the infection to others.
You should also see your GP if your child has been in close contact with someone who has measles and they haven’t been fully vaccinated (had two doses of the MMR vaccine) or haven’t had the infection before – even if they don’t have any symptoms.

Visit the NHS website to find out how you can keep your family safe from measles.