Dr. Greene’s Answer:
Measles is a highly contagious disease, and is spread from person to person through the air. During roughly the first 10 days following exposure, there is dramatic viral and immunologic activity taking place inside the body, with virtually no outward sign of illness.
Next comes the prodromal period in which symptoms of a cold (tiredness, runny nose, cough, and perhaps red eyes) with an added high fever (~39.5 C or 103 F) appear. These symptoms gradually increase over about 4 days.
During these 4 days, you will see white spots in the mouth. These are called Koplik spots, and are the hallmark of measles. They usually start on the inside of the cheek opposite the lower molars, then spread within 12 hours to cover most of the inside of the cheeks and lower lip. Many things can cause white spots in the mouth; Koplik spots always appear on a bright red, granular background.
The typical measles rash begins about 14 days after exposure (or 4 days after appearing ill). The fever is still at its height when the rash appears (in contrast to an infection called Roseola). The measles rash starts as spots, which then begin to blend together. The rash begins around the ears and on the forehead at the hairline. Over three days, it spreads sequentially to cover the face, neck, trunk, arms, buttocks, and legs. Over this same three-day period, the Koplik spots disappear, and the fever begins to fall. The rash disappears over another three or four days in the same order in which it started. As the rash fades, it looks coppery, then brownish, with fine white flakes.
The diagnosis is usually based on the presence of Koplik spots, the presence of the fever with the three C’s — cough, conjunctivitis, and coryza (cough, red eyes, and a very runny nose), and the sequential progression of the rash. The diagnosis may be confirmed by a blood test.
For uncomplicated measles, there is no specific treatment. Some studies suggest that vitamin A lessens the severity of measles. The cough is often severe, and some children benefit from cough medicines. Particularly during the period of the fever, plenty of fluids should be given. Avoid exposure to other ill children in the first weeks following measles, since some of the normal defenses are temporarily damaged.
In recent years, the number of measles cases in the United States has increased. The majority of those affected were unvaccinated or incompletely vaccinated for measles. Roughly 10% of those who contracted measles required hospitalization. This is a powerful reminder of the importance of measles vaccination in children.
Last reviewed: February 12, 2009