Measles (Rubeola)

By:    Published: April 4, 2012

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Measles, sometimes referred to as rubeola, is a viral respiratory infection that is extremely contagious. Primarily a childhood illness, the infection is not commonly seen in the United States due to vaccinations against the virus. However, there are 20 million cases of measles documented each year worldwide. Once you have had the measles virus you are not able to contract it again.

Definition

Measles is a virus that causes a respiratory infection and a rash. It is highly contagious and can be transmitted through airborne droplets of saliva from an infected person. It can often be prevented with vaccinations and the number of reported cases in the United States has diminished greatly since the vaccine was introduced during the 1960’s.

However, there are reported cases of measles in individuals who have been vaccinated against the disease. While the United States has seen a tremendous reduction in cases of measles, there are still many cases reported every year worldwide. The measles virus can be very serious and can cause death in some cases, especially in children younger than 5 years old.

Symptoms

Symptoms of measles typically begin between one and two weeks after a person becomes infected. Measles begins with mild symptoms and progresses to a more serious illness accompanied by a rash. It is most contagious four days before the rash begins and four days from the day the rash presents itself. Symptoms of measles generally include:

  • Fever
  • Cough
  • Runny nose
  • Sore throat
  • Body aches
  • Fatigue
  • Eye infections (conjunctivitis)
  • Red, blotchy, skin rash
  • Small white spots inside the mouth and cheeks (Koplik’s spots)

Causes And Risk Factors

A virus is responsible for the development of measles. This highly contagious virus exists in an infected persons nose and throat. Those who have not been vaccinated against the measles virus have a 90 percent chance of becoming sick if they live with an infected person. Measles is spread through airborne infected droplets that can be inhaled or can contaminate surfaces. If an infected person coughs, sneezes or laughs, these droplets are expelled into the air and can live for several hours. Certain risk factors increase a person’s chance for contracting measles, which include:

  • Not having immunity from measles.
  • Non-immune persons who travel internationally.
  • Persons having a vitamin A deficiency are more likely to catch measles and have more severe symptoms.
  • Studies suggest that persons who have been vaccinated more than 10 years ago and are in close proximity to an infected person may be able to contract measles once again.

Diagnostic Testing

If you suspect that you or your child has measles, contact your doctor right away to get a proper diagnosis and rule out other illnesses. Your doctor will likely make a measles diagnosis based upon the symptoms and the appearance of the rash. He or she may also order a blood test to confirm that the rash is caused by a measles infection.

Prevention

Once a person is infected with the measles virus, there is no treatment and the virus will have to run its course. However, actions may be taken to guard exposed persons from becoming infected. Preventative measures include:

  • Vaccinations for non-vaccinated exposed individuals. People who have been exposed to measles may still receive a vaccination within 72 hours to protect them from contracting the illness. If measles does develop, it may be a weaker strain of the virus and may last for a shorter time period.
  • Injections of immune serum globulin. People with a compromised immune system, infants, children or pregnant women who have been exposed to the measles virus may benefit from an injection of antibodies called Immune Serum Globulin. This injection may stop the measles virus from developing or may lessen symptoms.
  • Large doses of vitamin A. Since people with vitamin A deficiency tend to have a more severe case of measles, it is typically given to decrease the severity of symptoms.

Antibiotics are given to persons who develop a secondary bacterial infection after being diagnosed with measles. Watch children closely to see if another infection is brewing. Call your doctor if symptoms worsen or new symptoms arise. Bacterial infections resulting from complications from measles include:

  • Pneumonia
  • Otitis media (ear infection)
  • Encephalitis

Home Care

Since there is no treatment for measles, it is best to treat the symptoms that accompany the disease. Measles can last an average of 2 weeks, therefore home care is important. Suggestions for measles home care include:

  • Rest
  • Drink plenty of fluids
  • Treat fever and body aches with ibuprofen or acetaminophen
  • Use a humidifier to ease respiratory congestion and cough
  • Dim the lights or use sunglasses if bright light is bothersome

Bottom Line

There is no specific treatment for measles and the virus usually lasts 7 to 14 days. Persons infected with the virus need to be monitored for new symptoms or if present symptoms become worse. If you suspect that you or your child has been exposed to the measles virus or has contracted the illness, contact your doctor for a proper diagnosis.

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