Kids Health Info

Measles

  • Measles is a viral infection that causes a fever and a distinctive rash on the body. Measles is highly contagious and is spread easily through droplets from coughing and sneezing.

    In Australia, the MMR vaccination is given to all children at 12 months, and a second dose (the MMRV) is given at 18 months. These vaccinations cover measles, mumps, rubella and chickenpox. If your child has had two measles vaccinations the chance of them contracting measles is very low. However, people who are not immunised have a 90 per cent chance of becoming infected if they are exposed to the virus.

    Even though it is rare for Australians to get measles, outbreaks do occur so it is important to have your child immunised against measles. Often, outbreaks happen when the virus is brought into Australia by unimmunised people who have travelled overseas.

    Most children who get measles make a full recovery, but in some cases measles can be fatal if there are serious complications, like inflammation of the brain (encephalitis).

    Signs and symptoms of measles

    Once exposed to the virus, it can take 10 to 12 days for symptoms to appear. Your child can get the virus from someone who doesn’t even know they have measles yet.

    • Measles will start with cold-like symptoms, such as a fever, cough, runny nose, sore or red eyes and being more tired or lethargic than usual.
    • After two or three days, a distinctive rash will appear. The rash is red and blotchy and starts on the head, before spreading to the rest of the body.

    Most children who have measles are sick for less than a week, and should start to feel better about two days after the rash appears. The cough may persist for two weeks.

    Sometimes, measles can cause a secondary infection – children may get ear infections, pneumonia or diarrhoea and vomiting when they have measles. A rare but serious complication of measles is encephalitis (inflammation of the brain).

    When to see a doctor

    If you think your child has been exposed to measles, or if they are showing any measles symptoms, you should see your GP.

    Ask if your doctor can visit your child at home, or, if you visit a medical clinic, tell the receptionist as soon as you arrive, to avoid spreading the infection to others.

    Your doctor may need to do some tests to confirm measles.

    Immunity following a measles infection is usually lifelong, though in very rare cases a second infection can occur.

    Care at home

    Most children with measles can be treated at home after seeing a doctor. Antibiotics are not given because measles is caused by a virus. Antibiotics do not cure viruses.

    You can make your child more comfortable by:

    • encouraging plenty of rest
    • offering them plenty to drink to avoid dehydration
    • giving paracetamol or ibuprofen if they have a fever and are irritable (see our fact sheet Pain relief for children).

    You should go back to see your GP if your child has measles and:

    • they seem to be getting worse
    • they begin vomiting and are unable to drink much
    • they seem very tired or are more sleepy than usual
    • you are worried for any reason.

    Some children with measles may need to be admitted to hospital if they develop complications, or need hydration or antibiotics for a secondary infection (e.g. an ear infection, pneumonia).

    Go to the nearest GP or hospital emergency department if your child has a rash and:

    • changes to their personality
    • confusion or memory loss (amnesia)
    • seizures or paralysis.

    If your child is unwell with a fever and a skin rash (small bright red spots or purple spots or unexplained bruises) that does not turn to skin-colour (blanch) when you press on it, this may be a sign of meningococcal infection (see our fact sheet Meningococcal infection). 

    How is measles spread?

    Measles is very contagious and the virus spreads through droplets in the air from coughing and sneezing. You can get measles just by being in the same room as someone who is infected. It can also be spread by having direct contact with the infected person or touching contaminated surfaces.

    Measles was common in Australia before 1966, so people often had measles when they were young and are therefore immune. Anyone born during or after 1966 needs to have had two doses of vaccine to be protected.

    Measles outbreaks

    Measles is a problem in other countries where routine immunisation does not occur. An outbreak in Australia often starts when someone who is unimmunised travels overseas, becomes infected and brings back the virus.

    During an outbreak, anyone who hasn’t been immunised is at risk of infection. Those at high risk during a measles outbreak include:

    • babies under the age of 12 months, who are too young to be fully immunised
    • immunocompromised (have a weakened immune system because of medicines or illness)
    • children
    • pregnant women
    • people born during or after 1966 who have not had measles and who have not had two doses of the measles vaccine.

    If you or your child are currently unimmunised, you should speak to your GP, Maternal Child Health nurse or local council about whether you can have the measles vaccination. Do this even if you haven’t been exposed to measles.

    If for any reason your child has not been immunised against measles, avoid people or places linked to measles during an outbreak.

    Key points to remember

    • Measles is a highly contagious viral infection.
    • Measles is rare in Australia – your child has a low chance of contracting the virus if they have been immunised.
    • Measles can cause rare but serious complications and can be fatal.

    For more information

    Common questions our doctors are asked

    What if there is an outbreak but my baby is too young to be immunised?

    While babies under 12 months aren’t routinely immunised against measles, there can be special cases where, if a baby is exposed to measles, they can receive the vaccination if they are nine months old. Speak to your GP if you are concerned your baby has been exposed to measles. Avoid people or places linked to measles during an outbreak.

    What do I do if I’m unsure about my child’s immunisation status?

    All your child’s immunisations should be recorded in their My Health, Learning and Development Record (green book) or doctor's files. You can also access your child’s immunisation history online on the Australian Immunisation Register (AIR). This is a national register of vaccines given to people of all ages. Your child’s record can also be accessed by your maternal child health nurse or GP. If these resources don’t have a record of your child’s immunisation, a blood test can be done to check if your child is immune.

    My child has measles and I’m pregnant. What should I do?

    Measles can be harmful for pregnant women and their unborn children. Pregnant women who are exposed to the measles virus and are not sure of their immunity should talk to a doctor.


    Developed by The Royal Children's Hospital. We acknowledge the input of RCH consumers and carers.

    Developed March 2018.

    Kids Health Info is supported by The Royal Children’s Hospital Foundation. To donate, visit www.rchfoundation.org.au.


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Disclaimer
This information is intended to support, not replace, discussion with your doctor or healthcare professionals. The authors of these consumer health information handouts have made a considerable effort to ensure the information is accurate, up to date and easy to understand. The Royal Children's Hospital, Melbourne accepts no responsibility for any inaccuracies, information perceived as misleading, or the success of any treatment regimen detailed in these handouts. Information contained in the handouts is updated regularly and therefore you should always check you are referring to the most recent version of the handout. The onus is on you, the user, to ensure that you have downloaded the most up-to-date version of a consumer health information handout.