Learn how measles is transmitted, how to recognise the infection and to treat it.

How common is measles?

The success of the MMR vaccine means that in the UK, cases of measles are rare.

However, in recent years the number of cases has been on the increase. For example, the Health Protection Agency reported a surge in measles cases in England and Wales for the first half of 2011. A total of 496 laboratory-confirmed cases were reported from January to May 2011 in children and young adults, compared with just 374 cases for the whole of 2010. Read more about the rising trend in measles.

It is thought that the rise in the number of cases of measles is due to parents not getting their child vaccinated with the MMR vaccine, probably due to speculation linking MMR to autism.

Publicity in 1998 highlighted a report claiming a link between the MMR jab and autism. However, numerous studies that were undertaken to investigate this claim found no link between the MMR vaccine and autism.

Measles is a highly infectious viral illness. 

Anyone can get measles if they haven't been vaccinated or had it before, although it's most common in children aged between one and four years old. 

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.

The virus spreads very easily, and measles is caused by breathing in these droplets or by touching a surface that has been contaminated with the droplets and then placing your hands near your nose or mouth.

The initial symptoms of measles include:

  • cold-like symptoms
  • red eyes and sensitivity to light
  • fever
  • greyish white spots in the mouth and throat

After a few days a red-brown spotty rash will appear. It usually starts behind the ears, then spreads around the head and neck before spreading to the legs and the rest of the body.

Look at our childhood conditions slideshow to see what the measles rash looks like.

When to see your GP

Most childhood rashes are not measles, but you should see your GP if you notice the above symptoms and suspect it's measles. Measles is a notifiable disease, which means that any doctor who diagnoses the infection must inform the local health authority in order to identify the source of the infection and stop it spreading.

If you notice any additional symptoms while your child has measles, you should seek urgent medical attention.

Measles can be extremely unpleasant and can lead to complications such as meningitis and pneumonia. In very rare cases people have died from measles.

Read more about the complications of measles.

Treating measles

There is no specific treatment for measles and your immune system should usually fight off infection within a couple of weeks.

If your child has measles, there are a number of things you can do to help make them feel more comfortable, including:

  • closing the curtains to help reduce light sensitivy
  • using damp cotton wool to clean the eyes
  • taking paracetamol or ibuprofen to relieve fever, aches and pains
  • drinking plenty of water to avoid dehydration

In severe cases of measles, especially if there are complications, hospital treatment will be needed.

Read more about treating measles.

Although vaccinated children are unlikely to catch it, you should keep your child away from other children for at least five days after the rash has appeared.

Once you have fought off the measles infection, you develop immunity (resistance) to it.


The most effective way of preventing measles is the measles, mumps and rubella (MMR) vaccine.

The first MMR vaccination should be given at around 13 months of age. A booster is given before your child starts school.

If your child is younger than 13 months and you think they may have been exposed to the measles virus, see your GP immediately. The MMR may be given if they are over six months, or they may be given antibodies for immediate protection if they are younger than six months.

Measles and pregnancy

If you are planning to get pregnant and you have not had measles, arrange with your GP to have the MMR vaccine.

If you catch measles during pregnancy, it can be passed on to your baby, which can be very damaging or even fatal to your baby. Measles in pregnancy can cause miscarriage, premature labour or a baby with low birthweight. The MMR jab cannot be given during pregnancy.

Now read about symptoms of measles and watch a video about a mother's experience of her daughter having measles

Last reviewed: 26/01/2010

Next review due: 26/01/2012


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Comments are personal views. Any information they give has not been checked and may not be accurate.

barbaraS said on 01 August 2011

Measles can be prevented since vaccination is available to prevent it's occurrence. Another disease is chicken pox which also has a vaccine. These vaccines are very much effective in protecting the child from acquiring the said diseases. Just recently a new study has attributed the clear decrease in countrywide fatalities from chickenpox to the vaccine that has been encouraged since the mid-1990s. The study builds on past research into the efficacy of the chickenpox vaccine. It discovered that fewer individuals were dying from the disease as more individuals were inoculated against it. I found this here: <a title="Chickenpox deaths dropped sharply since vaccine was released" href="">Sharp drop in deaths from chickenpox credited to vaccine</a>

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