Causes of measles

Measles is caused by a type of virus called a paramyxovirus. This kind of virus spreads from person to person via ‘droplets’ from coughing or sneezing.

Measles is very contagious.

Until recently there were almost no cases of measles in Australia, because most children were immunised against measles as part of the National Immunisation Program. Recently the number of parents in Australia not immunising their children has started to increase, and so has the number of cases of measles.

Measles symptoms

The incubation period for measles is 10-12 days – that is, the virus infects children 10-12 days before you see any symptoms.

The earliest symptoms resemble those of a heavy cold – runny nose, sneezing, fever, conjunctivitis and a dry cough. You might also notice tiny white marks, called ‘Koplik’s spots’, on the inside of your child’s cheeks and at the back of her mouth.

The measles rash typically appears on the third or fourth day of the illness, usually starting behind the ears and along the hairline. It consists of small, red, irregularly shaped patches that spread over your child’s face and neck during the first 24 hours, before later spreading to the body, arms and legs.

The patches join up so that your child’s skin looks blotchy and red. When this happens, your child’s fever might get very high.

Your child will usually start to feel better 3-5 days later, when the rash starts to fade and the fever goes down. You might notice your child’s skin peeling at this time.

Complications of measles include ear infections, laryngitis and pneumonia.  These are usually bacterial infections and can be treated with antibiotics. Encephalitis is a rare but very serious complication of measles.

Note that it’s quite common for children with a viral illness to get a rash, but measles is still not common in Australia.

If your child gets measles, she’s infectious from one week before until one week after the rash appears. You should keep your child at home during this period to prevent the spread of the illness.

When to see your doctor about measles symptoms

You should take your child to the GP if you notice the symptoms described above, and you think your child might have measles.

Your doctor might give your child a blood test or do a mouth swab to confirm whether your child has measles.

Measles treatment

There is no cure for measles. The best you can do is treat the symptoms.

This involves trying to bring the fever down by giving your child paracetamol in recommended doses, and making sure that your child drinks plenty of fluids and gets lots of bed rest.

If your child complains of sore eyes, you could try keeping the lighting in your house dim.

Measles prevention

The best way to avoid measles is to have your child immunised. This gives your child 99% immunity against measles.

As part of the Australian National Immunisation Program (NIP), your child will get the two recommended measles immunisations free. He’ll get these immunisations at:

  • 12 months, in the MMR vaccine, which protects your child from measles, mumps and rubella (German measles)
  • 18 months, in the MMRV vaccine, which protects your child from measles, mumps, rubella and chickenpox.

If your child isn’t immunised and you think she’s been exposed to measles, it’s important to see your doctor as soon as possible – within 72 hours.

There is no scientific evidence of a link between immunisation and ASD. If you have any concerns about this issue, you should discuss them with your doctor.