Measles is a highly contagious respiratory infection caused by a virus that lingers and spreads in the air by way of an infected person coughing or sneezing. Measles is preventable through the combination MMR (measles, mumps, rubella) vaccine which is recommended to children 12 through 15 months with a second dose given at ages 4 through 6. For those who contract the disease, serious complications – such as pneumonia, encephalitis (swelling of the brain) and ear infections that can lead to permanent hearing loss – can occur.
Symptoms of measles are similar to the cold or flu – fever, coughing, runny nose, sore throat – but include red, watery eyes and a rash that typically begins on the face or lower hairline at the back of the neck which spreads over the entire body. A person infected with measles is contagious from about four days before to four days after the rash appears. The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention note that 90 percent of people close to the infected person who are not immune (vaccinated) to the disease will contract the virus. Because measles lives in the throat and nose mucus of an infected person, it is easily spread by coughing and sneezing and can linger in the air and infect surfaces for up to two hours after contamination. A person who breathes in the air or touches their eyes, nose or mouth after touching an infected surface can contract the virus if they are not immune. Even those immune persons can spread the disease through close contact with a person affected by the disease if infected mucus contaminates their clothing or other items.
The only effective way to prevent the spread and infection of measles is through the MMR vaccine. Children younger than 5 and adults older than 20 years of age who are not vaccinated are at risk for complications resulting from measles infections.
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Who is at risk for contracting measles?
Anyone who has not received the MMR (measles, mumps, rubella) vaccine is at risk of contracting measles. Children under age 5 and adults over the age of 20 who have not been vaccinated are most likely to develop complications from measles infections, such as pneumonia.
Am I protected against measles?
According to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, you are considered protected from measles if you have written documentation (records) showing at least one of the following:
- You received two doses of measles-containing vaccine, and you are a(n)—
- school-aged child (grades K-12)
- adult who was not vaccinated as a child and will be in a setting that poses a high risk for measles transmission, including students at post-high school education institutions, healthcare personnel, and international travelers.
- You received one dose of measles-containing vaccine, and you are a(n)—
- preschool-aged child
- adult who was not vaccinated as a child and will not be in a high-risk setting for measles transmission.
- A laboratory confirmed that you had measles at some point in your life.
- A laboratory confirmed that you are immune to measles.
- You were born before 1957.
If you’re unsure whether you’re immune to measles, you should first try to find your vaccination records or documentation of measles immunity. If you do not have written documentation of measles immunity, you should get vaccinated with measles-mumps-rubella (MMR) vaccine. Another option is to have a doctor test your blood to determine whether you’re immune, but this option is likely to cost more and will take two doctor’s visits. There is no harm in getting another dose of MMR vaccine if you may already be immune to measles (or mumps or rubella).
Why is measles still a concern in the United States?
Measles is primarily a concern in the United States due to travel of unvaccinated individuals (Americans and visitors) from other countries where measles is still a common disease into the United States, and pockets of unvaccinated individuals living in the nation.