Signs & symptoms of measles

What you need to know about this highly contagious virus

December 2, 2021

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What is measles?

Measles is a highly contagious virus that is usually passed through direct contact and through air. The virus infects the respiratory tract, then spreads throughout the body. Symptoms appear 10 to 12 days after infection with the virus.

Learn the symptoms

The most common symptoms of measles include:

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High fever
may spike to
more than 40°C (104°F)

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Cough

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Runny nose

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Red, watery eyes
conjunctivitis

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Spots in the mouth
2-3 days after symptoms begin

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Rash
3-5 days after symptoms begin

Measles is highly contagious

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The measles virus can live for up to 2 hours in an airspace where an infected person coughed or sneezed.

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If one person has measles, more than 90% of at-risk people close to that person will also become infected

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Infected people can spread measles to others 4 days before through 4 days after the rash appears.

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After being exposed to measles, the incubation period can last up to 21 days.

  • Measles can cause serious health complications, affecting several organ systems such as ears, eyes leading to blindness, gastrointestinal tract, central nervous system including inflammation of the brain and death.
  • Approximately 30 percent of reported measles cases have one or more complications, such as encephalitis or pneumonia.

  • Approximately 567 people die from measles-related complications each day, that equates to 24 deaths every hour.

Understanding measles outbreaks

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Between 2000-2018, annual reported measles deaths decreased by 73% globally.

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The number of measles cases increased 556% in 2019 (869,770 cases) compared to 2016 (132,490 cases).

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Natural disaster and/or conflict can put countries at greater risk for deadly measles outbreaks by damaging health infrastructure, interrupting health services and placing people in overcrowded residential camps.

Before the introduction of a measles vaccine in 1963, measles caused an estimated 2.6 million deaths annually.

143 countries reported 869,770 measles cases globally in 2019

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World Health Organization (WHO) member states reported more measles cases in 2019 than in any single year since 1996.

In 2020, the number of reported measles cases was lower, likely due in part to regulations put in place during the COVID-19 pandemic. However, these same regulations led to a disruption in health services in the majority of countries, including a decrease in routine vaccinations, which leads experts to believe there could be an uptick in measles cases as restrictions ease.

Measles is still common in many parts of the world, and travelers with measles can bring the disease to countries that have largely eliminated it. Measles can spread rapidly.