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What Parents Need to Know About Measles

May 14, 2019

Walter Rosenfeld, MD, Chair of Pediatrics for Goryeb Children's Hospital and Atlantic Health System answers questions for parents about children and measles:

Q: What is measles?

A: Measles, or rubeola, is an infectious viral disease that spreads easily from person to person. Before a vaccine for measles was introduced in 1963, measles was a common illness, particularly in children. Thanks to vaccination efforts, by the year 2000, the disease was declared eradicated in the United States. However, recent outbreaks in communities that have lower than the recommended vaccination rates mean the disease is again active in the United States and other countries.

Q: How do I know if my child has contracted measles?

A: High fever, cough, runny nose, and red, watery eyes are among the early symptoms. Two or three days after that, small white spots may appear in the mouth. Three to five days after the beginning of symptoms, the characteristic measles rash appears—flat red spots starting at the hairline and spreading downward onto the face, neck, trunk and limbs. Some of the spots may have raised red bumps on them, and they may be so numerous that they actually join together. The appearance of the rash often coincides with a high fever of 104 degrees or higher. Symptoms generally appear one to two weeks after exposure to the infection, but can occur up to 21 days after exposure.

Q: How easy is it to get measles?

A: It’s very easy to get measles if you’re inadequately immunized against it and come into-contact with an infected person. It’s spread by coughing and sneezing, and the virus lives in airspace for up to two hours, meaning you can be exposed even two hours after an infected person left the room. People with measles can transmit it anywhere from four days before to four days after their rash first appears. Measles is highly contagious with up to 90% of people who aren’t immune, either because they never had measles in the past or weren’t vaccinated against it, getting measles if they’re close to someone who has it.

Q: I think my child may have measles. Should I rush to the pediatrician’s office or the hospital?

A: No. Although your instincts may be telling you to go straight to a healthcare provider, if you think your child has measles or has been exposed to someone with measles, the first thing to do is call your pediatrician to report your suspicions. Why? The highly contagious nature of measles means that your child potentially could infect dozens of people simply by stepping inside a healthcare facility.

Your pediatrician will instruct you on how to proceed, which also gives healthcare practitioners time to prepare their team and the facility to prevent the spread of infection.

Q: What should I do to protect my child from getting measles?

A: The most important thing to do is make sure your child gets the measles-mumps-rubella (MMR) vaccine. The first dose is given between 12 and 15 months of age, with a second dose given between ages four and six years of age. For families traveling overseas, the vaccines are given slightly earlier; check with your doctor for the appropriate timetable. Also, if you are planning to visit one of the locations in the U.S. where there have been high rates of measles, you should discuss with your pediatrician whether it is advisable to give a first dose of the vaccine to your child if she or he is less than 12 months of age.

If your child has not yet been vaccinated against measles and you’re concerned that she or he has been in contact with someone who has measles, getting the vaccine right away may help them avoid developing the disease. They may also be given a medicine called immune globulin, which can help avoid the disease. If the child doesn’t get vaccinated or take immune globulin, you’ll probably be advised to keep them away from places that have large numbers of children in order to avoid putting them at risk.

Q: Is the MMR vaccine safe?

A: Yes, it is safe. Most children don’t even experience any side effects from it, although some have a bit of soreness, swelling, rash, or slight fever. After thorough, careful study, researchers have determined that there also is no link between the MMR vaccine and autism.

Q: My child has been immunized against measles. Should I still be worried if she comes into contact with someone who has the disease?

A: Although unlikely, it is possible for a child who received the suggested two doses of the measles vaccine to contract the virus. The good news is that the disease will probably be milder than usual and less likely to spread.

Again, it’s important not to just show up at your doctor’s office or an emergency department to avoid the risk of exposing others. Call your doctor or the emergency department first.