What should you do to protect your family from the measles?

May 7, 2019 in Family Caregiving  •  By Miles Varn, MD

Almost 20 years ago, measles was declared to have been eliminated in the U.S., but the disease has returned with a vengeance. The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention’s (CDC) latest report of confirmed measles cases noted 704 cases in 22 states, an increase of 78 cases since the previous week’s count. Children under 5 account for about half of these cases. It’s the largest number of cases of this disease in the country since 1994. Of the 22 states reporting cases, six qualify as currently having outbreaks (3 or more cases), including:

  • New York (New York City and Rockland County)
  • Michigan
  • New Jersey
  • California (Butte County, LA County, and Sacramento County)
  • Maryland
  • Georgia

Measles is a serious and potentially life-threatening disease. Before the measles vaccine was introduced in the U.S. in 1963, there were 4 million measles cases that caused 48,000 people to be hospitalized, 4,000 people to develop encephalitis (an inflammation of the brain), and 500 deaths in the U.S. every year. In the pre-vaccination era, measles was the leading global cause of death in children.

The current measles cases have been linked to unvaccinated people who had traveled to Israel, where there is currently an outbreak of the disease, and a person from Eastern Europe visiting Washington state who was infected with a strain of the disease that is circulating there.

How is measles spread?

Measles is an airborne virus known as the rubeola virus. When an infected person sneezes or coughs, small droplets that contain the virus are released. These airborne droplets can remain suspended in air for a fairly long period of time and can survive on surfaces like tables, door knobs, and faucets for up to two hours after they’re deposited. People who are infected can be contagious up to four days before they start to show any symptoms.

The disease is extremely contagious. If an infected person coughed or sneezed near people who hadn’t been vaccinated, 90% of those unvaccinated people would contract it.

The symptoms of measles include:

  • high fever
  • cough
  • runny nose
  • red, watery eyes
  • white spots inside the mouth
  • rashes that look like flat red spots or small raised bumps on top of reddened skin

There is no prescription medication to treat or cure measles, but your doctor may recommend acetaminophen to lower fever and reduce muscle aches. Most people who contract measles recover completely in a week or two. But there can be serious complications, especially for children under 5, including:

  • pneumonia (the most common complication)
  • ear infections
  • diarrhea
  • encephalitis

For pregnant women, measles infection can increase the risk of pre-term labor, low birth weight, and the death of the mother.

 Vaccinate to protect your family

The only effective way to protect yourself and your family against measles is to ensure that you all have received the recommended two doses of the MMR (measles, mumps, rubella) vaccine. If you or someone in your family contracts measles, you can lower the risk of spreading the disease by isolating yourself and remaining at home and away from the other members of your family.

At school and work, you can reduce your risk of contracting or spreading measles by practicing healthy habits similar to the ones you use to prevent contracting the flu:

  • Wash your hands frequently or use a gel based hand sanitizer that contains at least 60% alcohol.
  • Cover your mouth and nose with a tissue or your sleeve when you cough or sneeze.
  • Don’t share glasses, utensils, or other things that could be contaminated with the virus.


Topics: ,