Measles is caused by the measles virus.
Measles is very contagious. The virus spreads from person-to-person via ‘droplets’ from coughing or sneezing.
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. But more Australian parents are not immunising their children, so there are more cases of measles.
The measles virus usually infects children 10-12 days before any symptoms appear.
The earliest symptoms look like those of a heavy cold – runny nose, fever, conjunctivitis and dry cough. Early in the illness children can have tiny white marks on the insides of their mouths. These are called ‘Koplik spots’.
The measles rash typically appears on the third or fourth day of the illness, starting behind the ears and along the hairline. It consists of small, red, irregularly shaped patches that spread over the face and neck during the first 24 hours, before later spreading to the body, arms and legs. The patches might join together to make the skin look blotchy. When this happens, children often get a high fever too.
Children usually start to feel better after 3-5 days. The rash starts to fade and the fever goes down. Some children have skin peeling at this time.
It’s unusual for a child to get a fever again after recovering from measles. But measles can weaken the immune system, which means your child is at risk of getting other infections including pneumonia. Encephalitis is another rare but very serious complication of measles.
If your child gets measles, she’s infectious from one week before until one week after the rash appears.
Does your child need to see a doctor about measles?
Yes. You should take your child to the GP if you’re worried your child might have measles. It's a good idea to ring ahead in case your GP needs to make arrangements to reduce the risk of measles spreading.
You should also see your GP if you or your child has been in contact with someone who could have measles, particularly if you or your child fall into a high-risk category. High-risk categories include:
- unimmunised children
- babies under 12 months of age
- children who have a weakened immune system because of illnesses like cancer
- pregnant women.
Tests for measles
Your doctor might do a blood test or nose swab to confirm whether your child has measles.
Treatment for measles
There’s no medication that can make measles go away, but there are things you can do to ease your child’s symptoms:
- Give your child paracetamol in recommended doses to lower his fever and help him feel better.
- Encourage your child to drink plenty of water and get lots of rest.
- Try dimming the lights in your house if your child complains of sore eyes.
Children with measles or children who’ve been in contact with someone who could have measles should avoid contact with other children and unimmunised adults until after they’ve seen a GP.
Prevention of measles
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 gets two free measles immunisations. Your child needs both doses for the immunisation to work. She’ll get these immunisations at:
- 12 months, as part of the MMR vaccine, which protects your child from measles, mumps and rubella (German measles)
- 18 months, as part of the MMRV vaccine, which protects your child from measles, mumps, rubella and varicella (chickenpox).
Some parts of the world have high rates of measles. You should speak to your GP about travel immunisations at least three months before travelling to these areas.
Don’t forget to wash your hands carefully when caring for a child with measles.
Some parents are worried that the MMR vaccine is associated with an increased risk of autism spectrum disorder (ASD). There’s no scientific evidence that vaccines are linked to the development of ASD. If you have any concerns about the MMR vaccine, it’s a good idea to discuss them with your GP.