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HealthInfo West Coast-Te Tai Poutini


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Measles is caused by a virus. It's very infectious, meaning it spreads very easily.

When someone with measles coughs, sneezes and talks, they release droplets into the air. You can catch measles by breathing in the droplets. You can also catch it from touching an infected surface or object such as a door handle.

People who have not been vaccinated or have a poor immune system have a higher risk of getting measles.

Measles can sometimes cause serious problems such as swelling on the brain (encephalitis), which can cause brain damage. A small number of people will die from this complication.

Symptoms of measles

Symptoms of measles include fever, cough, inflamed red eye (conjunctivitis) and runny nose.

The fever usually starts seven to 18 days after you're exposed to the virus. After two to five days a rash appears, which is red with small, raised bumps. It usually starts behind your neck and ears before spreading to the rest of your body. You can see pictures of the measles rash at DermNet.

Diagnosing measles

If you think you or your tamaiti (child) has measles, phone your general practice team or Healthline (0800-611-116) for advice. Do not visit a general practice or after-hours clinic without calling first as you may risk passing the virus on to others.

Your general practice team may arrange for a throat swab and a blood sample to be tested.

Treating measles

There is no medicine to treat measles. The treatment aims to relieve symptoms. Rest, drink plenty of fluids and use paracetamol or ibuprofen (ask your general practice team or pharmacist for advice) to help with fever and pain.

Phone your general practice team again if your tamaiti becomes very drowsy, confused or unresponsive.

Preventing the spread of measles

If you have measles, you'll be infectious from four full days before the rash appears to four full days after the rash appears.

If you aren't immune and think you may have been exposed to measles, you'll need to stay in isolation for up to 14 days from the time you may have become infected. This means staying home from school or work and having no contact with unimmunised people, including not visiting your general practice team or after-hours clinic. Phone your general practice team or Healthline (0800-611-116) for advice. Do not have any visitors to your home. If others in your household are unimmunised, they will also need to stay in isolation.

To find out if you need to stay in isolation and for how long, check the measles quarantine calculator.

For more information on managing in isolation, see Quarantine & isolation.

Preventing measles

Vaccination is the best way to prevent measles. The MMR vaccine is used to prevent measles, mumps and rubella. Tamariki (children) receive this vaccine at 12 months and 15 months as part of the National Immunisation Schedule. Immunisation is 99% effective after the second dose.

People born before 1969 have usually had measles and are considered immune.

From 1969 to 1992, tamariki were only given a single dose of the measles vaccine. If you were born in this period, you're more at risk of catching measles and are eligible for a second funded measles vaccine through your general practice.

Measles during pregnancy

Pregnant women who become ill with measles during pregnancy are at risk of miscarriage, going into labour early and having pēpi (babies) with low birth weights.

If you're pregnant and think you may have measles or if you've come into contact with someone with measles, call your general practice team or lead maternity carer as soon as possible.

Pregnant women shouldn't get the measles vaccine during pregnancy, but close contacts of pregnant women should be vaccinated to help protect both the mother and unborn baby from exposure. Read more about measles and pregnancy.

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Written by HealthInfo clinical advisers. (Measles during pregnancy information adapted from Healthify He Puna Wairoa). Last reviewed May 2022.


See also:

Eating and drinking when you're unwell

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