Measles is one of the viral conditions that used to be common in childhood. It is spread from person to person by contact, such as coughing or kissing.
In New Zealand vaccination against measles is free to all children – generally infants are vaccinated for measles, mumps and rubella (German measles) at the same time in an MMR vaccination at 15 months and again between 4 and 5 years of age. This means that most children are no longer at risk of catching this illness.
Outbreaks of measles do occur, and this often spreads rapidly amongst those who were not vaccinated or whose immunity is poor.
In susceptible children and adults, measles at its worst can cause some swelling in the brain, with serious side effects. As this is a viral condition, antibiotics will not treat the virus, but antibiotics may be used to prevent catching a bacterial infection on top of the viral infection.
Symptoms of measles start with fever, cough, sore throat, sticky or itching eyes, and often sensitivity to light. By about the third day tiny white spots with a red circle around them usually appear inside the mouth. Then a blotchy red rash appears, originating around the ears and spreading over the face and down to the body and the limbs.
Treatment is generally by keeping the child inside, away from the light, resting quietly, with (ideally) no other children about. Soft foods are often helpful for the sore throat and give paracetamol if the fever and headaches are bothersome. Cough mixtures are no longer recommended for young children, so using vaporisers or steamy showers may help an annoying cough. Vaporisers are devices that you can buy or hire from pharmacies – they emit warm moist steam that helps to loosen phlegm and soothe an irritated throat.
If the eyes have a coloured or pus discharge then you must see a doctor as a bacterial infection may have developed.
As measles is a contagious disease children who have measles need to be kept away from other children until five days after the rash has disappeared. If there are other children in the family, see if your doctor recommends a booster vaccination for them, or attempt to keep them in a separate room as much as possible to limit contact and the chance of spreading the infection.
Your local pharmacist can give you advice about prevention and treatment of measles. If you are concerned about measles and its implications for your family then your family pharmacist has information and support about what to do in the event of an outbreak of measles or any other infection condition that may affect you or your family.