The Measles Signs in Kids Every Parent Needs to Know About
- The measles is a highly contagious viral infection that can lead to serious, occasionally life-threatening complications — especially in babies and kids.
- The first signs of the measles include a fever, red eyes, cough, and runny nose. These typically appear before the trademark red rash.
- The best protection against the ongoing measles outbreak is to get vaccinated.
As the U.S. continues to battle cases of the measles, more and more states are recording outbreaks. According to the most recent data from the Centers for Disease Control (CDC), 387 measles cases have appeared in 15 states this year—that’s already 15 more cases than the total number reported in 2018.
The CDC has identified six different ongoing outbreaks in New York, New Jersey, California, and Washington, with additional cases in Arizona, Colorado, Connecticut, Georgia, Illinois, Kentucky, Michigan, Missouri, New Hampshire, Oregon, Texas, and Washington.
“Prior to this year, I’d maybe seen two or three cases of measles, but now due to this outbreak in close proximity to our hospital, I’m seeing several cases per week,” says Gail Shust, M.D., pediatric infectious disease specialist at Hassenfeld Children’s Hospital at NYU Langone.
Because the disease had almost completely disappeared for so long, she says there’s a misconception that measles is a benign disease. In reality, it can cause serious, occasionally life-threatening complications.
What’s more, the measles can initially present as a fever and red, inflamed eyes that parents may mistake for pink eye, says Natasha Herz M.D., a board-certified opthamologist and clinical spokesperson for the American Academy of Ophthalmology.
Here’s exactly what parents need to know about measles cases in kids, including how to prevent them and the first signs to watch out for:
What is the measles?
The measles, also called rubeola, is a highly contagious infection caused by a virus. The disease is almost entirely preventable with a vaccine. According to the Mayo Clinic, common symptoms include:
- Dry cough
- Runny nose
- Sore throat
- Red, inflamed eyes
- A skin rash with large, flat blotches
Cases in the U.S. had declined to about 60 or so cases per year during 2000 to 2010, but recent outbreaks tied to an increase of international travel and more communities with unvaccinated people have caused that number to skyrocket.
What causes measles?
The measles virus spreads through respiratory droplets, usually from somebody coughing or sneezing. These little infectious particles can remain active in the air for a long time — up to two hours, according to the CDC.
That makes the virus highly contagious: “Let’s say I have the measles and I was in a room of 10 people who didn’t have the vaccine,” Dr. Shust says. “Nine out of those 10 people would get the measles.
What is the first sign of measles?
A fever, cough, runny nose, or red eyes typically present first before the rash appears, according to the Mayo Clinic. It’s easy to mistake red, inflamed eyes for pink eye or another common childhood virus, but if it appears with a fever, that’s usually a good early indicator that something serious is going on, Dr. Herz says.
Another key difference between measles-caused conjunctivitis and your typical case of pink eye: “You would feel sensitive to regular, indoor light,” she explains. “That’s not normal, and it’s a big red flag.”
The light sensitivity is a sign that the cornea is affected and permanent scarring can occur without the right treatment. If your child has a fever and red, painful eyes, contact a pediatrician and opthamologist right away.
Is the measles dangerous?
Dr. Shust stresses that the measles is more serious than most parents may realize. An infected person can experience other complications, like diarrhea, pneumonia, or a especially severe condition called encephalitis, which is an infection in the central nervous system and the brain. Approximately one or two out of every 1,000 children infected with the measles will die from complications, the CDC states. Before the vaccine became available in 1963, 400 to 500 people died of measles each year.
Without proper treatment, the measles can also do permanent damage by attacking your vision. “Long term after the virus is gone, you can have scarring in your cornea,” Dr. Herz says. “It blurs and distorts your version. The cornea — the clear tissue in front of the eye like a windshield — would have white areas in front of it that you wouldn’t able to see through.”
How do you prevent measles?
The number one thing you can do is get your child vaccinated for the measles. The vaccine works so well that the CDC declared measles eliminated from the U.S. in 2000, but cases brought in from abroad still cause outbreaks among communities that haven’t been immunized today. That’s why it’s especially important to get your child vaccinated if you plan on traveling to foreign countries, Dr. Shust says.
Other basic hygiene practices like washing your hands and covering sneezes with a tissue or elbow will also help limit the spread of the virus, but vaccination is the strongest and most effective form of protection.
Can you get measles if you have the vaccine?
It’s extremely unlikely. The first dose of the mumps and rubella (MMR) vaccine – usually administered between 12-16 months of age —provides 93 percent protection. The second dose, typically given to kids between the ages of four and six, raises that number to about 97 percent effectiveness.
That means very few vaccinated people (about three out of 100) could get the virus. Even then, they would experience a milder form of it and they’re less likely to spread the disease, according to the CDC.
Does having measles give you lifelong immunity?
Yes, having the measles once means you can’t get it a second time. Most Americans born before 1957 are presumably immune to the disease since they’ve likely already had it, the CDC states. This is also what makes the vaccine so effective.
How do you treat measles?
There isn’t a specific antiviral “cure,” but doctors will usually administer vitamin A to pediatric patients with the measles for two days, Dr. Shust says. Anyone who experiences measles symptoms should call a doctor, but it’s especially important to seek professional care (versus trying to treat the illness at home) in high-risk cases. Kids under the age of five are particularly likely to develop serious complications because their immune systems aren’t as developed.
How long does it take to recover?
A case of the measles typically lasts two to three weeks from the time you contract the virus until the disease is no longer communicable, the Mayo Clinic says. Generally, the red splotches will start to go away about a week after they appear, Dr. Shust adds.
How long will the measles outbreak last?
Like cold or flu season, the measles has some seasonality to it. Dr. Shust expects the number of new cases to go down as more people spend time outside and schools close for the summer, as there’s not as much of a chance for the virus to spread. However, this disease is still highly contagious and it’s possible for an unvaccinated person to contract it at any time of year.
“It’s super, super, super infectious,” she says. “All it really takes is for one person to have it.”