What you need to know about measles

With news swirling about the recent measles outbreaks in multiple states, it can certainly be a lot to take in. The Centers for Disease Control (CDC) is reporting new measles cases in at least 15 states since the beginning of the year.

With warnings on how to protect yourself and your loved ones, it can be overwhelming to say the least. It might be best to start with the basics.

What is measles?

Measles, also called rubeola, is a childhood infection caused by a virus. Some people think of it as a little rash or fever, but measles may cause serious health complications and can sometimes be deadly, especially in children younger than 5 years of age.

Most people in the U.S. are protected against measles through vaccination. Before the measles vaccination program started in 1963, about three to four million people got measles each year nationwide, and among those affected, 400 to 500 died, according to the CDC.

Today, about 1 in 4 people in the U.S. who get measles will be hospitalized, and only one or two patients out of 1,000 may die from the illness, even with the best care.

What are the symptoms?

The symptoms of measles generally appear about 7 to 14 days after a person is infected, according to Mayo Clinic. Two or three days after symptoms begin, tiny white spots, called Koplik spots, may appear inside the mouth. Three to five days after symptoms begin, a rash may begin as flat red spots on the face, starting at the hairline and moving down the neck, chest and other parts of the body. Small raised bumps may also appear on top of the rash. The secondary rash triggers a fever of up to 104 degrees, the CDC reports.

The main symptoms include:

  • Fever
  • Rash made up of large, flat blotches that often flow into one another
  • Runny nose
  • Dry cough
  • Sore throat
  • Red, watery, inflamed eyes (conjunctivitis)

How does measles spread?

Measles is highly contagious and spreads through the air when an infected person coughs or sneezes. Your child could potentially get measles just by being in a room where a person with measles has been, even up to two hours after that person has left.

The CDC says it is so contagious that if one person has it, 9 out of 10 people within contact will also become infected if they are not protected.

Am I protected against measles?

The CDC considers you protected from measles if you have written documentation showing at least one of the following:

  1. You received two doses of measles-containing vaccine, and you are:
    • school-aged child (grades K-12)
    • adult who will be in a setting that poses a high risk for measles transmission, including students at post-high school education institutions, healthcare personnel, and international travelers.
  2. You received one dose of measles-containing vaccine, and you are:
    • preschool-aged child
    • adult who will not be in a high-risk setting for measles transmission.
  3. A laboratory confirmed that you had measles at some point in your life.
  4. A laboratory confirmed that you are immune to measles.
  5. You were born before 1957.

I’ve been exposed to measles. What should I do?

Immediately call your doctor to determine if you are immune, based on your vaccination record, age or lab test.

If you have measles, doctors recommend you should stay home. Also, cover your mouth and nose when you cough or sneeze, wash your hands with soap and water, avoid sharing drinks and utensils and disinfect frequently touched surfaces such as doorknobs, tables and counters.

The CDC is currently tracking the rise in measles outbreaks in regions across the U.S., including California, Washington, Michigan, New York and New Jersey.

According to the CDC, the outbreaks are linked to travelers who brought measles back from other countries, such as Israel, Ukraine and the Philippines, where large measles outbreaks are occurring. 

If you have concerns about the measles outbreak, talk to your family physician or check the CDC website for the very latest information. 

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