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5 things you didn't know about the measles

Young child getting a band aid after receiving a vaccination
Young child getting a band aid after receiving a vaccination

Measles is sometimes thought of as a harmless virus that can cause some discomfort for a few days. However, measles can cause some very serious health issues, and is highly contagious, which is why we vaccinate against the disease.

When measles symptoms start it can feel like the flu with a high fever, tiredness, cough, runny nose and/or red eyes. These symptoms usually become more severe over the following days and white spots may develop in the mouth. This is followed by the appearance of a blotchy red rash, often beginning on the face or upper neck, which then spreads to the rest of the body. At this point, people usually feel the most unwell. It is especially dangerous to children, the elderly and those living with a chronic illness. Here are some important things you need to know about the measles.

Measles is more contagious than you think

The measles virus is one of the most infectious diseases known to humans. A person with measles can cough in a room and leave, and up to two hours later, if you’re unvaccinated, you could catch the virus from the droplets in the air the infected person left behind. In fact, measles is more contagious than Ebola, and even the flu! People with measles are usually infectious from a day before the symptoms begin. The time from exposure to becoming sick is usually about 10 days. This means people who are sick with the measles may unknowingly spread the virus because they don’t realise they are sick. It is estimated that a person with the measles will infect about 12 to 18 people they have contact with who have not been immunised or previously infected with measles.

Picture showing how contagious the measles is when compared to other illnesses

Measles can cause swelling on the brain

Measles can cause very serious illness. The first signs of measles begin like a cold or cough. The person affected can gradually become more unwell and over the coming days might notice white marks inside their mouth. A red, spotty rash can appear from the third day. This rash begins on the face and upper neck before spreading to the rest of the body.

Measles can also lead to more serious problems like pneumonia , which is an infection in the lungs, and encephalitis, inflammation or swelling of the brain. Encephalitis affects 1 in 1000 people with the measles and can lead to serious brain damage. Encephalitis can be life-threatening.

Signs of encephalitis can include a high fever, headache, a stiff neck, vomiting and becoming sensitive to light. The chances of getting the measles, as well as the virus turning into something more complicated, can be eliminated by getting vaccinated.

Getting measles can make it easier to pick up other diseases

When you’re sick, your body is working to fight off your illness in order to get you back to full health. Your body’s ability to do this, is all because of the strength of your immune system. Your immune system has a memory of the cells and parts of your body that help you function well. When bacteria, viruses or parasites enter your body, your immune system knows that they are unfamiliar and works to get rid of them.

Measles can weaken your immune system, and it can also wipe its memory of the illnesses your body may have fought off in the past. This can increase your risk of picking up other infections during and after illness with measles. It can take months and sometimes years for the body’s immune system to return to its original state.

Child with flu like symptoms blowing their nose

Do I need a measles vaccination booster?

Measles occurs in adults as well as children. Although the vaccine is very effective, there might be a reason why you need a booster shot.

A booster is an extra dose of a vaccine that you’ve had before that ‘boosts’ the immune system. Booster doses help adults to maintain their immunity for a range of vaccine-preventable diseases.

You may need a booster depending on:

  • Whether you plan on travelling
  • How old you are
  • If you missed out on your vaccine as a child
  • If you are Aboriginal and/or Torres Strait Islander

Staying up to date with the vaccination against the measles virus is just as important as vaccinating your child. If you are unsure if you received the vaccination, you can check your immunisation history with your GP. In Queensland, anyone born during or since 1966 without two documented doses of a measles-containing vaccine is eligible for a free MMR booster.

Your child might not be too young to be vaccinated

The National Immunisation Program Schedule Queensland encourages parents to vaccinate their baby for measles at 12 months and 18 months of age. The 2 doses of the vaccine are free and for the best protection, vaccinations need to occur on time.

Babies under 12 months old aren’t routinely vaccinated against the measles, however, if you have concerns about your baby being exposed to the measles, or you are planning travel with your baby, speak with your GP or child health nurse.

It is important to avoid people and places where measles outbreaks have occurred. You can stay up-to-date on any Queensland outbreaks here.

Learn more about the measles here:

Queensland Health: Measles

Queensland Health: What is measles and why we vaccinate against it?

Health Direct: How do I know if I’m immune to measles

Last updated: 11 February 2020