Definition & Overview

Measles is a highly contagious viral infection that affects the respiratory system. The virus resides in the respiratory system, which is why it can be transmitted in a variety of ways, such as through coughing, sneezing, or touch. Being an airborne type of virus, it can live outside of the body for up to two hours. It can stay on surfaces, doorknobs, or any object and infect anybody who touches it.

The virus mostly affects children, but it can also affect anybody of any age. However, those who already had measles become immune to the virus. Today, measles vaccines are widely available in many countries, which significantly reduces the risk of an outbreak.

Cause of Condition

There are two types of viruses that cause measles -- rubeola and rubella. Each virus causes a different type of measles. The rubeola virus causes the popular “red measles” also called “hard measles”. While most people recover from this condition, it can also cause life-threatening conditions like pneumonia and encephalitis.

On the other hand, the rubella virus causes “German measles.” While this is considered a milder form of the condition, it can also cause some damage especially in pregnant women, putting the unborn child at a higher risk of developing birth defects.

Both rubeola and rubella are highly contagious. Rubeola is one of the fastest spreading viruses known to man. Fortunately, measles vaccines are now widely available, which is one of the reasons why measles outbreaks are uncommon in many countries around the globe. However, in areas that are highly susceptible to the virus, it can spread rapidly. This is because it takes 7 to 18 days before the key symptoms of measles appear.

Key Symptoms

The most noticeable symptom of red measles are rashes, which usually appear between 2 to 4 days after the onset of other symptoms. Before the rashes appear, an infected person will already be experiencing sore throat, coughs, and sneezing. When the virus progresses, it can also affect the lymph nodes making them swell. High fever, diarrhea, and sore eyes are also common symptoms.

The symptoms will usually last for around 7 to 10 days. Most children will not have any problems during this period, while adult patients may feel extreme joint pains.

German measles, on the other hand, have milder symptoms than the common red measles. In fact, the symptoms may be so mild that the infected person may not be aware of his or her condition.

The incubation period is around 10 days to two weeks. The person will first experience fatigue, followed by headaches and a low-grade fever. Rashes will appear several days after. The rash begins with small spots on the face before spreading to the rest of the body.

Most people with German measles experience joint pains, especially in the wrists and knees. However, if a pregnant woman is infected, there is a high risk of complications. The unborn child will also likely to contract the virus, leading to a number of conditions, such as cataracts, hearing impairment, learning disabilities, or even stillbirth.

Today, rubella and rubeola viruses that cause measles have become uncommon, but they are still around. As such, people who become infected are usually not aware of the condition. It is only when they consult a doctor to seek treatment for a rash or for the other symptoms of the illness that they become aware.

While measles will not normally require emergency medical care, there is a possibility that complications will develop. If you experience any of the above symptoms, it’s best to see your family doctor right away.

Who To See & Types Of Treatment Available

Your family doctor will first need to diagnose your condition by performing a physical examination and studying your medical history. If measles is suspected, you may need to undergo blood examinations.

Since measles is a viral infection, there is no specific treatment for the condition. People who are infected need to wait until the symptoms subside. However, if complications such as pneumonia or encephalitis develop, these will need to be treated separately at the hospital.

Home treatment is the most common form of treatment for measles. The person will need to have plenty of rest, taking occasional warm baths that help in reducing the discomfort. If a high-grade fever develops, the person will need to take plenty of water to prevent dehydration. Analgesics and antipyretics will also help with the fever and ease the discomfort to a certain degree.

Home treatment is also recommended to prevent the virus from spreading. The virus is usually transmitted 4 days before and after the rashes appear. Anybody who is helping in the treatment should already be vaccinated or previously had measles.

If you or your children have never experienced measles and have not been vaccinated, it is best to consult your doctor for vaccinations. Children who are vaccinated may experience similar symptoms, but to a lesser degree. Adults, on the other hand, will normally experience joint pains.


  • Gershon AA. Measles virus (rubeola). In: Bennett JE, Dolin R, Mandell GL, eds. Principles and Practice of Infectious Diseases. 8th ed. Philadelphia, PA: Elsevier Saunders; 2014:chap 162.
  • Mason WH. Measles. In: Kliegman RM, Stanton BF, St. Geme JW III, et al., eds. Nelson Textbook of Pediatrics. 19th ed. Philadelphia, PA: Elsevier Saunders; 2011:chap 238.
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