If members of your family have the measles, you'll see an unpleasant rash develop all over their bodies. Here are ways to cope with the symptoms and to prevent the measles virus from spreading to others.

By Jeannette Moninger
April 02, 2015
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Credit: Courtesy of the CDC

If you or your child starts to sport the telltale signs of measles -- a fine rash of tiny red dots that appear on the head and then spread to the lower extremities -- your first thought might be to head to the doctor. But please don't go without calling first. "You can spread the virus to everyone you come into contact with, and measles is especially dangerous for unvaccinated infants and pregnant women," says Sheila Nolan, M.D., chief of pediatric infectious diseases at Maria Fareri Children's Hospital at Westchester Medical Center in Valhalla, New York.

Besides, once the virus sets in, you pretty much have to let the illness run its course. Nonetheless, there are some precautions you can take if you or your child gets sick with the measles.

Keep away from others. "Measles spreads astonishingly fast among those who aren't vaccinated," says Matthew Kronman, M.D., assistant professor of pediatric infectious diseases at Seattle Children's Hospital. "Simply breathing the same air as someone with measles is enough to spread the disease. Plus, any room an infected person enters stays contaminated and is itself contagious for two hours after they leave."

To protect others, you or your child need to stay isolated during the contagion period, which is four days after the rash develops. (You're contagious four days before the rash appears, too, but most people aren't aware they have measles until the rash appears.) If there are unvaccinated family members in your home, call your doctor to see if there's still time for them to get the vaccine or another treatment called immunoglobulin (IG) therapy, which involves transferring the protective anti-measles proteins -- called antibodies -- that are pooled from donated blood to unvaccinated people. This type of treatment is recommended only for unvaccinated, virus-exposed infants 12 months and younger, as well as unvaccinated pregnant women and children with compromised immune systems.

Talk to your doctor about vitamin A. Research suggests that people who are deficient in vitamin A may be more at risk for complications from measles, including pneumonia. The World Health Organization recommends vitamin A supplements to lessen the symptoms and reduce complications from measles, particularly in developing countries or wherever vitamin A deficiency is suspected.

Provide TLC. The entire course of measles, with symptoms including rash, fever, congestion, cough, and red, watery eyes, typically last about two weeks, but fevers should only last around five days. Although there's no medical treatment for measles, these steps can help you or your child feel more comfortable:

  • Take a fever-reducing medication, such as ibuprofen (Advil) or acetaminophen (Tylenol). Never give aspirin to children, especially those with viral infections like measles, as it increases the risk of Reye's syndrome, a rare but potentially fatal illness that damages the brain and liver.
  • Rest and stay hydrated. The main goal is to prevent dehydration, so both water and Pedialyte are fine for kids.
  • Skip the cold medication. Measles and colds are both respiratory infections, but the American Academy of Pediatrics (AAP) doesn't recommend over-the-counter (OTC) cold medicines for children ages 4 and younger (they're questionable for older kids too). "Research found that giving cold medicines to children didn't really alleviate symptoms. However, the medication could be harmful if given incorrectly," says Dr. Kronman.

Watch for other danger signs. Children younger than 5, as well as adults older than 20, are most at risk for serious complications from measles, including pneumonia, brain swelling, seizures, diarrhea, ear infections, and hearing loss due to brain damage. One to two out of every 1,000 children die each year from measles. Call your doctor if you notice any of these symptoms: high fever (usually around 103.5 degrees); abnormal behavior, such as hallucinations or extreme irritability; lethargy (unable to rouse a child or get a coherent response to a question); labored or fast breathing; headaches; seizures; or vision or hearing problems.

Pay attention to long-term health. One out of 20 kids who have measles get pneumonia, which is the common cause of death from measles. And one out of every 1,000 kids who have measles will develop encephalitis, or swelling of the brain, which can lead to convulsions, deafness, and brain damage.

Also, up to 11 out of every 100,000 people (kids and adults) who get measles go on to develop a disease of the central nervous system called subacute sclerosing panencephalitis (SSPE) about 10 years after first being stricken by the virus. "We don't know why someone who seems fully recovered from measles suddenly develops this illness," says Dr. Nolan. Symptoms of SSPE include unexplained and unusual behavioral changes, forgetfulness or dementia, muscle spasms or weakness, and an unsteady walking gait. Antiviral medications can slow the disease progression, but people with SSPE typically die a year or two after disease onset. Most children, though, recover from the measles without experiencing serious complications. As with any illness, it's best to call the doctor any time you are concerned about your child's health.

All content on this Web site, including medical opinion and any other health-related information, is for informational purposes only and should not be considered to be a specific diagnosis or treatment plan for any individual situation. Use of this site and the information contained herein does not create a doctor-patient relationship. Always seek the direct advice of your own doctor in connection with any questions or issues you may have regarding your own health or the health of others.

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