What is measles, and why is the disease back

Many Baby Boomers recall the days when nearly every kid got the measles. Indeed, before 1963, measles was one of the most common childhood diseases in history. In those days, the virus was responsible for around 2.6 million deaths every year, according to the World Health Organization.

Thankfully, in 2000, the American medical community eliminated measles, according to the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC). Despite that milestone, measles outbreaks still occur in the U.S., often within unvaccinated communities.

So, what is measles, and how can we prevent it?

What Is The Measles Virus?

Measles, also known as rubeola, is a serious, highly contagious viral infection that attacks the respiratory tract before spreading to other areas of the body. Early symptoms include a high fever, a cough, a runny nose, and itchy, watery eyes.

But among the most recognizable effects of measles on the body is the characteristic rash. Most often, the telltale rash erupts in the mouth and on the face and neck. It spreads to the limbs, eventually appearing on the hands and feet before subsiding.

What makes this virus so dangerous is its communicability. The CDC has estimated 90% of people near an infected person will contract measles. Infected people can spread measles to others up to four days before the appearance of the telltale rash. Measles can be spread from person-to-person contact as well as airborne spread.

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Who Is Most at Risk for Measles?

Developing and poverty-stricken countries are most at risk for widespread measles outbreaks. Regions that have suffered disasters or strife also have more cases of measles. In these situations, medical infrastructure is compromised, and vaccines are less readily available.

Those at highest risk here in America are young unvaccinated children and unvaccinated pregnant women. Also of concern are non-immune individuals. This includes people who have not been vaccinated and people who received the vaccine but did not develop immunity.

Most cases are unknowingly brought home from overseas. When that happens, communities with low vaccination rates are at highest risk.

What Makes Measles Dangerous?

Measles is serious because of common complications. In some instances, measles may be fatal.

Severe diarrhea can cause dehydration. Pneumonia, blindness, and brain swelling (encephalitis) are among other severe complications of measles. In some cases, measles can lead to permanent neurological damage. People in high-risk groups for the virus itself are also at higher risk of serious complications.

Measles is often associated with childhood illnesses, but unvaccinated adults can also come down with measles.

What Are Measles Symptoms?

The measles virus is progressive and somewhat deceiving in that its initial symptoms mimic other colds and viruses. Measles symptoms typically don’t reveal themselves until 10 to 14 days after exposure. People remain contagious four days prior to the appearance of a rash and four days after.

Most people experience the following symptoms when exposed:

  • High Fever
  • Dry cough
  • Runny nose and sneezing
  • Sore throat
  • Inflamed, red, watery eyes
  • Malaise, fatigue, and muscle aches
  • Loss of appetite
  • Diarrhea
  • Rash
  • Headache and possible sensitivity to light
  • Swollen lymph nodes
  • Tiny white spots with bluish-white centers on a red background found inside the mouth on the inner lining of the cheek

What to Do if You Suspect Measles

“If you believe you have symptoms of measles, please contact your PCP immediately to notify them that you may have been exposed,” said Karen Hacker, MD, former director of the Allegheny County Health Department.

“Do not go directly to the office, urgent care center, or emergency room, as this may expose other people,” Dr. Hacker said.

Pregnant people should contact their doctor about their immune status. Health care providers who suspect measles should contact their local health department for consultation and testing.

If you have not done so, you should talk to your provider about getting an up-to-date measles-mumps-rubella vaccine as soon as possible. Vaccines protect you and your loved ones, as well as those who have compromised immune systems, such as infants and the elderly.

Treatment and Prevention of Measles

There is no cure for the measles. Once transmitted, the measles virus must run its course.

Doctors make a diagnosis by observing the effects of measles on the body. Then, they’ll recommend a supportive medical care regimen, which may include administering fluids, proper nutrition, and antibiotics when necessary for associated conditions such as infections in the eyes or ears as a result of contracting measles.

This regimen can mitigate the rate and intensity of complications and even save lives.

Most measles outbreaks are entirely preventable. The measles vaccination is simple, inexpensive, and safe. Most importantly, it’s 97% effective.

Once you’ve had the measles, it is unlikely that you will contract it again.

How Long Does Recovery Take?

The measles virus usually runs its course within three weeks. The rash may last for up to seven days. Most measles-related deaths are due to complications from the illness.

Editor's Note: This article was originally published on , and was last reviewed on .

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