Measles. It’s been in the headlines lately, and for good reason. Although measles has been considered effectively eliminated in the United States since 2000, this disease has been diagnosed more than 700 times nationally so far this year. It’s a sobering statistic, but it’s more cause for concern than for panic. However, with the prevalence of travel in the United States during the summer. Learn how to protect yourself and your family through awareness, prevention, and timely treatment.
Although widely known for the conspicuous red skin rash it causes, measles is actually a respiratory disease. This means the germs are carried in the nose and throat mucous of an infected person and spread when that person coughs or sneezes.
Once the carrier expels the germs, they can live up to two hours in the air or on surfaces such as doorknobs, handrails, and many other items we touch every day. To complicate matters, infected people can produce and unknowingly spread the germs as many as four days before they show noticeable symptoms.
But still, don’t panic. You can take some simple steps to help reduce the chances of you or a loved one contracting this disease.
The first line of defense against measles are widely vaccines. These safe vaccines are 97% effective in preventing measles when administered at the recommended rate of two doses given more than four weeks apart to unvaccinated adults. Children can receive the vaccine from 12-15 months of age and a second dose at 4-6 years old.
Once you’ve ensured your family’s vaccinations are completed, measles prevention looks a lot like cold and flu prevention:
- Wash your hands regularly, especially after touching surfaces many other hands may have touched, such as escalator railings, elevator buttons, door handles, bathroom fixtures, ATMs, etc.
- Consider carrying a small bottle of hand sanitizer (containing at least 60% alcohol) for when soap and water aren’t available.
- Try to avoid touching your hands to any of your mucous membranes (i.e., eyes, nose, and mouth). If you must, make sure your hands are freshly washed, and carry tissues for dabbing at a runny nose or itchy eye.
- Cough and sneeze into your shoulder or the crook of your arm rather than covering your nose and mouth with your hands (or, even worse, not covering them at all!).
- Cold and flu advice has you avoid close contact (e.g., kissing, hugging, and sharing cups or utensils) with people you know are sick—but since you may not know a measles carrier is infected (and they may not be aware), be conscious of close contact with, well, anyone. Don’t let measles deter you from human affection, but during an uptick in cases like we’re seeing now, it’s wise to be more aware of your interactions.
If you suspect you’ve been exposed to measles, early detection and diagnosis will be key to ensuring a full recovery. It may take as many as 10 to 14 days after exposure for symptoms to appear, so keep in mind that symptoms you see today may have been caused by an encounter you had almost two weeks ago. Symptoms unfold in stages:
Infection/Incubation (10–14 days). No symptoms are present, although in the latter part of this stage, the infected person will be contagious regardless.
Mild Symptoms. The disease starts presenting itself at this stage, with the infected person showing mild, nonspecific symptoms such as a dry cough, runny nose, red and irritated eyes, and a sore throat. A major danger of this stage of measles is that it’s often misdiagnosed as another illness, from common cold and tonsillitis to exotic conditions like dengue fever and scarlet fever.
Rash. In addition to the well-known rash of flat, red blotches that typically spread starting from the head and working their way down the body, measles produces another telltale mark: so-called Koplik’s spots, which are tiny white spots with bluish-white centers on a red background. These spots are found only in the mouth.
Acute Illness. With the rash in full bloom, acute symptoms such as high fever (as high as 106°) and intensified respiratory distress set in. Infected people continue to be contagious for up to four days after the onset of the rash, which will eventually recede in the same order it spread, clearing from the head and face and then down the body to the feet.
Should you contract measles—or even suspect that you’ve been exposed—it’s important that you seek medical treatment as soon as possible. Treatment is important for your own health and safety, of course, but also to help manage the spread of this incredibly infectious disease, which can be especially deadly to certain vulnerable groups like the elderly, unvaccinated persons and babies (remember, they can only get the vaccine from age 1).
Your doctor may prescribe medications to manage fever and pain and advise you to rest and hydrate, but, surprisingly, there is no actual measles medication. Regardless, you need to be under a doctor’s care because the primary risk with measles is that many people who contract measles will go on to develop a dangerous secondary infection such as pneumonia or encephalitis. Thus, measles treatment is largely concerned with preventing these added complications.
Should you suspect exposure or observe any of the signs or symptoms of measles in yourself or your loved ones—especially if anyone in your family is elderly, a child, pregnant, or immune-compromised—seek medical attention immediately. You can locate a nearby BetterMed and even pre-book an appointment online.
“Measles Cases and Outbreaks”, Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, https://www.cdc.gov/measles/cases-outbreaks.html
“Transmission of Measles”, Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, https://www.cdc.gov/measles/about/transmission.html