The dreaded measles is back, and it’s sweeping across several states, including New York, Washington, Texas, Illinois, Florida, and California. In fact, by April 9 there had been over 400 confirmed cases of measles in the U.S., more than the 372 cases in all of 2018 – and this number is likely to continue to rise. So what does measles look like, how does it spread, and what steps can we take to protect our families?

What Does Measles Look Like?

Spread by the rubeola virus, measles is one of the most contagious infectious diseases known. It can cause serious, even fatal, illness. Measles symptoms usually appear 7-21 days after exposure to the virus and include a runny nose, cough, and rash. Tiny white spots may appear inside the mouth 2-4 days after symptoms begin, and a red or reddish-brown raised and spreading rash appears 3-5 days after symptoms appear. During this time, a person’s fever may also rise to more than 104°F. The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) offers “Measles Photos” to help parents determine whether a rash could potentially be a measles infection.

How Does Measles Spread?

Measles can spread when infected people cough or sneeze, or when mucous droplets from someone who is infected settle on frequently touched surfaces. While the disease can be serious for all age groups, measles-related complications typically occur in children under the age of five, and in adults older than 20.

How contagious is measles, you ask? According to the CDC, measles can spread to as many as 90% of non-immune people (those who are unvaccinated or have never had the disease) in close proximity to an infected person. Measles can be spread to others for up to four days before and four days after the rash appears.

Measles Outbreaks Highlight the Importance of Vaccination

Although you can take precautions to help prevent measles (during an outbreak) by disinfecting frequently touched surfaces with a 1% solution of chlorine bleach (1 tsp. bleach to every two cups of water) and washing your hands often, the key to avoiding this potentially life-threatening disease is to get vaccinated! The measles vaccine was invented in 1963, and thanks to its widespread distribution in the trivalent MMR vaccine, measles became relatively rare in the United States – and was even eradicated in 2000.

The MMR vaccine was designed to protect, or immunize, against measles, mumps, and rubella, and has led to a greater than 99% reduction in measles cases compared to the pre-vaccine era. A 2015 study also revealed that the MMR vaccine can limit other infections that result from measles-induced damage to the immune system damage that can last over two to three years after infection.

Unfortunately, some parents are reluctant to have their children immunized with the MMR vaccine for fear of harmful side effects, even though studies have failed to prove any link between the two. Most people who contract measles have not been vaccinated, which serves as yet another reminder that foregoing childhood vaccinations not only puts our own children at an increased risk but also threatens the historic gains of modern disease control efforts.

When Should You Get Vaccinated?

The CDC recommends that children be administered two doses of the MMR vaccine: the first at 12-15 months of age, and the second at 4-6 years. Teens and adults should also be up to date on their MMR vaccination. Because measles is still common in many parts of Europe, Asia, and the Pacific, it’s especially important to ensure that your family’s MMR vaccinations are current before traveling to a foreign country.

Understanding what measles looks like and how it spreads is an important step in keeping your family safe.