Measles Disease

The first written account of measles disease was published in the ninth century by a Persian doctor. In 1912, the United States began requiring its healthcare providers to report all diagnosed cases. By the 1950s, measles was a prominent disease in the U.S., with an estimated 3 to 4 million people infected every year.

In 1963, the first measles vaccine was developed, followed by an improved version in 1968. After decades of monitoring and vaccination, measles was declared eliminated from the United States in the year 2000. Elimination of an infectious disease is declared when the disease is no longer found or transmitted at a sustained rate within a geographic area. With regard to measles, this did not mean the disease disappeared from the U.S. altogether --- rather, it meant new cases were isolated, often occurring because someone had contracted measles abroad and brought it into the country, infecting members of their family and/or community. Since 2000, the number of cases of measles in the U.S. has ranged from a low of 37 in 2004 to a high of 1,274 in 2019.

Unfortunately, measles is once again making news in the U.S. in 2024. As of April, there have been 7 outbreaks (defined as 3 or more related cases) resulting in 121 cases in 18 states. (Alabama, as of this writing, is not among the states with active measles outbreaks.) 

As health officials continue to monitor these new cases, it's a good time to familiarize yourself with measles disease.

What is Measles Disease?

Measles is a viral respiratory illness that lives in the nose and throat mucus of those infected. It is considered a very serious disease, with 20 to 30 percent of those who get it suffering from complications such as ear infections, hearing loss, diarrhea, and pneumonia.

Measles symptoms appear 7 to 14 days after a person is infected. Early symptoms include:

  • Fever (up to 105° F)
  • Cough
  • Runny Nose
  • Red or Watery Eyes

Within 2 to 3 days of these early symptoms, tiny white spots may appear inside of the mouth.

Three to 5 days after symptoms appear, a rash of flat red spots may appear on the face and spread to the neck, chest, arms, legs, and feet. These red spots may also become small, raised bumps during the illness.

Anyone experiencing these symptoms is advised to consult their healthcare provider immediately.

How Does Measles Disease Spread?

Measles is a highly contagious disease, infecting up to 95 percent of unvaccinated people who are exposed to it. It spreads person-to-person, usually when an infected person coughs or sneezes. Measles can live for up to 2 hours in the air or on surfaces. Infected people can spread it to others 4 days before and 4 days after the rash appears.

Measles Treatment

There is no specific treatment for measles infection once it occurs. However, you can consult your healthcare provider and take steps to keep the infected person comfortable with plenty of rest and symptom relief.

  • Drink plenty of fluids.
  • Use age-appropriate fever reducers such as aceteminophen, ibuprofen, children's ibuprofen, etc.
  • Giving children vitamin A may reduce the severity of the measles infection.

Your healthcare provider may prescribe antibiotics for pneumonia, ear infections, or other bacterial infections that can develop during a measles infection.

Visit the Mayo Clinic for more tips on handling a case of the measles. 

Measles, Mumps, Rubella (MMR) Vaccine

The MMR vaccine is considered the best protection against measles. MMR recommendations are as follows:

  • First dose for children at 12-15 months, and the second dose at 4-6 years of age. Two doses of MMR are over 97 percent effective in preventing measles.
  • Infants and children, students at post-high school institutions, and healthcare staff should get two doses of MMR.
  • Adults born after 1956 should get at least one dose of MMR.
  • Unvaccinated persons who are exposed to measles should get one dose of MMR within 72 hours of exposure to reduce the chance of getting measles.

To learn more about the MMR vaccine, including those who should not get the vaccine and the potential risks and side effects, visit Immunization at the Alabama Department of Public Health (ADPH).

Another available option is the MMRV vaccine, which combines Varicella (chickenpox) with the MMR vaccine. This is typically given to the 4-6 years age group, but can be given to those as young as 12 months of age.

Measles Resources