Measles is a highly contagious viral infection that is diagnosed by it's distinctive symptoms. Doctors generally do not need a laboratory test to identify the specific virus involved with this common childhood illness.
What are the Symptoms of Measles?
The symptoms of measles begin about 7-14 days after the initial infection. An infected person will develop a fever, runny nose, sore throat with hacking cough and red eyes that may be sensitive to light. Tiny white spots will start to appear inside the mouth 2 -4 days later. The mildly, itchy rash appears 3-5 days after the start of these symptoms.
This progressive rash begins in front of and below the ears and on the side of the neck. This rash will look like irregular, flat, red areas that soon become raised. The rash spreads within 1-2 days to the trunk of the body, arms and legs, and it will begin to fade on the face at this time. As the rash fades to a brownish color that gradually disappears the person is no longer contagious.
A person with measles will feel miserable at the peak of the illness, with a temperature that can exceed 104 degrees F. Typically this disease runs its course within two weeks with no complications.
Measles is rarely serious, but extenuating circumstances such as poor health, or in the case of extremely young children, can lead to problems. Bacterial infections can step in causing pneumonia or a middle ear infection. People already infected with the measles are also more susceptible to infection from streptococci bacteria.
Blood platelet levels can become so low that the individual bruises and bleeds during a bout with the measles as well.
Brain infection, encephalitis, is a complication in approximately 1 in 1,000 cases. Encephalitis is known by high fever, convulsions and possible coma that could occur 2 days to 3 weeks after the rash appears. The recovery could be as brief as a week, but if left untreated could cause brain damage. This is not a common occurrence though, as typically the measles come and go without a trace.
Prevention and Treatment
Before vaccines were widely available, epidemics of measles occurred every 2 or 3 years. These were concentrated around the preschool age and school aged population, now the measles is commonly seen in teenagers and young adults, or in children under a year old.
The disease is spread through small airborne droplets of moisture coughed out by an infected person. Susceptibility to measles is high, but thankfully, a single attack of measles makes a person immune for life.
Treating the symptoms is the best way to proceed in caring for a person with the measles. Keep comfortable and administer acetaminophen or ibuprofen to reduce fever along with lots of fluids. The individual may be very sensitive to light, so rest in a dimly lit room is best. If a secondary bacterial infection develops, then an antibiotic will be prescribed. Generally speaking though, the measles runs a fairly regular course and can be treated simply at home.