Last updated:

Reviewed by:

Dr Bryony Henderson

, Lead GP at Livi

Medically reviewed

Measles is an infectious illness that causes a rash and makes you feel generally unwell. It mainly affects children, although it can happen at any age, and is easily prevented through vaccination. Learn about the main signs of measles and what to do if you think you or your child is infected.

What is measles?

Measles is an infectious viral illness that can occur at any age but mainly affects children. 

It’s highly contagious and is spread through droplets when someone with the infection coughs or sneezes or by touching a surface contaminated by these droplets. 

What are the symptoms of measles?

It takes about 10 days to develop symptoms after being exposed and catching measles. You are infectious to others from 4 days before the measles rash starts to 4 days after.

The most common early symptoms of measles are:

  • High temperature

  • Sore throat

  • Runny nose

  • Cough

  • Sore or watering eyes

  • Sensitivity to light

  • Headache

  • Nausea

  • Fatigue

  • Aches and pains

  • Loss of appetite

  • Small grey or white spots inside your mouth called koplik spots

A few days later measles rash with red or brown spots that are usually flat will develop. The little spots can join together to form larger, blotchy patches. This appears typically on the head and face first before spreading to involve the rest of the body. The rash generally resolves after 6 days.

How can I prevent measles?

To reduce the risk of catching measles:

  • Wash your hands regularly with soap and water

  • Don’t share towels, toys, cutlery, drinks or food etc. with someone who has symptoms

  • Clean surfaces regularly

  • Always sneeze or cough into a tissue and immediately throw it into a bin

You’ll need to stay off work or school until after the rash has been present for at least 4 days to prevent spreading measles. 

Measles vaccine

The measles, mumps and rubella (MMR) vaccine is given to children at the age of 1, with a second booster at 3 years and 4 months old. Adults and older children can also request to be vaccinated if they haven’t had it before.

This vaccine effectively prevents measles, but the number of children not being vaccinated in the UK has risen, leading to a resurgence in measles cases.  

In the past, concerns were raised about a link between the MMR vaccine and autism. But numerous studies have investigated this and found no connection between the two.

How is measles diagnosed?

If you think that you or your child has measles, contact the doctor before visiting the surgery in person, as you may need to make specific arrangements to avoid the risk of spreading the infection.

The doctor will usually diagnose measles by examining the rash and may also take a saliva test to confirm the diagnosis.

How is measles treated?

Measles is caused by a virus, so it will generally get better with time and without any specific treatment. Antibiotics aren’t needed and won’t help to improve the symptoms. Most people recover from measles on their own within 7 to 10 days. 

While recovering from measles, try to ensure you or your child: 

  • Drink plenty of fluids (water is best)

  • Get a good amount of sleep and rest

  • Eat nutritious meals

  • Use paracetamol and/or ibuprofen to ease pain or temperature

Most people only have measles once, as the body generates immunity after recovering from the virus. 

What are the complications of measles?

In some cases, measles can cause severe complications such as pneumonia or inflammation around the brain.

In these cases, urgent hospital treatment is required. It’s important to monitor children under the age of 1 closely as they are more likely to suffer complications from measles. 

When should I speak to a doctor?

If you’ve been in close contact with someone who has measles, it’s essential to see a doctor if:

  • You haven’t had measles before

  • You haven’t been fully vaccinated

  • You are pregnant

  • Your immune system is weakened

You should also see a doctor if:

  • Your symptoms don’t start to improve within 7 days

  • You feel very unwell, particularly if you have any breathing difficulties, chest pain, develop a severe headache, confusion or drowsiness

If your child is sick with measles, see a GP if they:

  • Are under 3 months of age and have a temperature above 38°C

  • Are 3 to 6 months old and have a temperature above 39°C 

  • Are over 6 months old and develop a high temperature that doesn’t reduce with paracetamol/ibuprofen

  • Have had a temperature every day for more than 5 days

  • Are breathing faster than normal, or you notice the skin in between their ribs drawing in on each breath

  • Are lethargic or fatigued

  • Stop passing urine regularly

  • Stop eating or are taking less than 50% of their regular milk intake

  • Don’t seem their usual self, and you’re worried for any other reason

Last updated:
Reviewed by:
Dr Bryony Henderson, Lead GP at Livi