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Measles Causes and Treatment

Updated on January 22, 2010

Only one disease in mankind's history has been totally eradicated by medical science, and that was smallpox, the last case being in Somalia in 1978. Medical science continues to advance, and the next disease on the international hit list is measles. This may seem a strange choice, as many people consider this to be a relatively minor disease. However, serious complications may be associated with measles, and in more primitive countries where there is no natural immunity, a measles epidemic can be devastating.

Measles usually starts with the cold-like symptoms of a snuffly nose, cough and conjunctivitis. Not until the rash develops a few days later can the diagnosis be made. The rash starts in the mouth, where tiny white spots may appear on the lining of the cheeks. The skin rash usually starts on the face about four days after the cold symptoms, and gradually spreads as dark red blotches across the body. The rash remains for a week or more before gradually fading. Other symptoms include a high fever and avoidance of bright lights. Light does not actually harm the patient's eyes, but because of the inflammation of the eye, bright lights cause significant eye discomfort, and for this reason patients prefer to rest in a dimly lit room.

The patient often starts to feel better once the rash has reached its maximum spread, but is contagious from five days before the rash appears until it disappears. The incubation period (time from exposure to the virus until the disease appears) is 10 to 14 days. The diagnosis can be confirmed by blood tests if necessary, but it is usually quite obvious. Previous exposure to the measles virus can also be confirmed by blood tests.

Measles is due to a viral infection, and like all other viral infections there is no specific treatment. All doctors can do is ease the symptoms of the disease, and in the case of measles they can also prevent the disease by vaccination. If everyone is vaccinated, then the disease ceases to exist. Some small countries in Europe and Africa have carried out comprehensive vaccination campaigns and have already eradicated the disease. But because vaccination against measles is voluntary, and not compulsory, some parents neglect to have their children vaccinated, and outbreaks are still occurring. Not until over 90% of the population has been vaccinated, or developed natural immunity by catching measles, will the disease die out.

The ideal time to vaccinate a child is between 12 and 15 months of age, but older children and adults can be vaccinated at any age. The vaccination is normally combined with the mumps and rubella (German measles) vaccine, and is given as one injection that gives lifelong protection. The obvious reason for vaccinating your child is to prevent them from catching the disease and its nastier complications. These include encephalitis (a serious brain infection) that may result in permanent brain damage, pneumonia, ear infections and damage, and the increased risk of developing multiple sclerosis later in life. Death, although rare (approximately one in every 5000 cases), can occur, even in developed countries, but in third-world countries, one in ten children or adults who catch measles will die.

Immediately after an attack of measles, patients are susceptible to other infections, and a significant number will develop bacterial infections such as tonsillitis, ear and gland infections that can be treated with antibiotics.

If your child catches measles, have the diagnosis confirmed by a doctor, who will probably prescribe rest, pain-killers and medicine to relieve the cold symptoms. If the child worsens, immediately seek further medical help.

If you or your child have not been vaccinated, see your doctor as soon as possible and arrange a vaccination to prevent this slowly disappearing but still serious disease.

Please Note:

  • The information provided on this page is not intended as a substitute for the advice of a registered physician or other healthcare professional.

  • The content of this page is intended only to provide a summary and general overview. Do not use this information to disregard medical advice, nor to delay seeking medical advice.

  • Be sure to consult with your doctor for a professional diagnosis and appropriate medical treatment.


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