What is measles?

Measles is caused by the Morbillivirus from the paramyxovirus family. The infection mainly affects children but can occur at any age. It is rare in the UK, due to immunisation.

The illness is usually self-limiting and most children recover. However, some children develop serious complications and can occasionally be fatal.1

The following is a summary about the disease. For further details speak to your local pharmacist or GP.

Related: Mumps | Rubella

How is measles spread?

Measles is a very contagious infectious disease. The virus is spread by air-borne droplets. These spread to surfaces and the virus can remain contagious for up to two hours, therefore removing the need for direct person-to-person contact.

The infection has an average incubation period of 10-12 days and infectivity lasts from 4 days before, until 4 days after the rash of measles appears.1

Which countries are at risk from measles?

Measles is endemic in many countries. In particular, countries experiencing or recovering from a conflict or natural disaster are particularly prone to outbreaks of measles.

Damage to health infrastructure and health services can interrupt routine immunisation schedules and overcrowding in residential camps greatly increases the risk of infection.2

What are the signs and symptoms of measles?

Early signs of a measles infection include:

  • Fever
  • Runny nose
  • Cough
  • Red and watery eyes
  • Koplik spots (small red spots with bluish-white centres) inside the mouth

After several days, a rash appears, usually on the face and upper neck. The rash spreads, eventually reaching the hands and feet and lasts 5-6 days before fading. Measles is commonly confused with other infections that can lead to a rash.3

What are the complications of measles?

Complications are more common and more severe in poorly nourished and/or chronically ill children, including those who are immunosuppressed.

Complication can include:

  • Pneumonia
  • Ear infections – otitis media
  • Encephalititis (infection of the brain)
  • Severe diarrhoea
  • Convulsions
  • Blindness
  • Severe risk in pregnancy – miscarriage, prematurity, and low birth weight1

What is the treatment for measles?

Uncomplicated measles is usually self-limiting. Treatment is mainly symptomatic and may include:

  • Paracetamol or ibuprofen
  • Plenty of fluids
  • Rest

Patients are advised to remain at home to limit spread of the disease. They should be monitored for signs of complications and consider hospitalisation if these appear.1

What advice is there for travellers?

Individuals who have never had measles infection or are unvaccinated or incompletely vaccinated, may be at risk from measles when visiting countries reporting cases, especially if staying with friends or family and mixing with the local population.

All UK travellers should ensure they are up-to-date with the Measles, Mumps and Rubella (MMR) vaccination, according to current UK recommendations.4

When to consider vaccination

The MMR (measles, mumps, rubella) vaccination is given on the NHS as a single injection to babies as part of their routine vaccination schedule. It is given

  • 1st dose: within a month of their 1st birthday
  • 2nd dose: 3 years and 4 month

The vaccine can sometimes be given to babies from 6 months if they may have been exposed to the measles virus. It is not recommended to babies under 6 months.

MMR vaccination is also recommended for:

  • Older children up to the age of 18 who have missed or are only partially vaccinated
  • Women planning for pregnancy (not suitable once they are pregnant)4


MMR vaccines contain live, attenuated (modified) strains of measles, mumps and rubella viruses. MMR vaccine does not contain thiomersal or any other preservatives.5


This information is taken from trusted third party websites, NaTHNaC (Travel Health Pro) and EMIS (Patient info) and use of all information has been licenced under the Open Government Licence

Although the materials are being used/replicated under the provisions of the Open Government Licence this in no way represents endorsement of by NaTHNaC, Emis, Public Health England, the NHS or the Department of Health and Social Care.


  1. Patient.Info: Measles
  2. Travel Health Pro: Measles
  3. Public Health England: Guidance – Measles: symptons, diagnosis, complication and treatment (factsheet)
  4. NHS: MMR vaccine overview
  5. The Green Book: Chapter 21 – Measles