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Page last updated on 09 November 2018

Measles is a highly infectious viral infection that can cause serious illness, particularly in young children and adults.

Typically, measles begins with common cold-like symptoms (runny nose, red eyes and cough), followed by fever and the ‘measles rash’, which tends to start on the face and then begins to spread all over the body. Most people recover from measles, however for some, severe complications may occur, which can be fatal. There is no specific treatment for measles, but the infection is preventable by vaccination.

Measles outbreaks are now rare in Australia due to routine vaccination programs. However, anyone who is not immune is at risk of contracting measles, as there is the risk that infection can be brought in by travellers arriving from overseas. In 2017, there was a measles outbreak in western Sydney after a traveller who contracted the disease in Indonesia brought the virus back home.

Key disease information

What is the measles virus?

Measles, is a highly contagious infection that's caused by a particular virus, known as Morbillivirus. It causes a skin rash (that usually begins on the face and the spreads down to cover the entire body) and flu-like symptoms, including a fever, cough, and runny nose. 

Measles can be a severe illness – serious complications are much more common in young children (under 5 years of age), in the chronically ill and in adults. In fact, 60% of deaths from measles are caused by the development of pneumonia (especially in the young), and from encephalitis (brain swelling), particularly in adults.  Measles during pregnancy can cause miscarriage, premature labour, and/or babies may have a low birth weight. In a small number of cases, measles may also be fatal.

Is measles contagious?

Yes. Measles is highly contagious – so much so, that around 90% of non-immune people who are exposed to the measles virus are thought to become infected. Once exposed, symptoms occur around 8-10 days later.

How is measles spread?

The measles virus is spread when a person breathes in the measles virus that has been by coughed or sneezed into the air by an infected person. In fact, measles is one of the most easily spread disease of all human infections – by just being in the same room as an infected person can result in you contracting the virus yourself. 

The virus can survive in airspace where an infected person as coughed or sneezed for up to two hours – so people can contract the measles by breathing in that same contaminated air, or by touching a contaminated surface, then touching their own mouth, nose or eyes.

The measles can spread to others from four days before the rash appears, through to four days after it appears. 

What does measles look like?

While measles is probably best known for its full-body ‘measles rash’, the first symptoms of the infection are usually associated with a cough, runny nose, high fever, red eyes and generally feeling unwell (malaise). Children who get the disease also may develop Koplik's spots (tiny white spots).

The measles rash breaks out about 3-5 days after symptoms start, starting on the face and moving down the body. The rash is made up of flat, red spots, and is not itchy. Sometimes, small, raised spots may also appear on top of the flat spots. In most people, once the rash appears, recovery will take around 4-7 days after that, as the fever breaks and the rash fades.

In some cases, severe illness may arise, including middle ear infection, diarrhoea, pneumonia (lung infection), encephalitis (brain swelling), and for a minority, the infection may be fatal. There is also an exceptionally rare risk of Subacute Sclerosing Panencephalitis (SSPE), which may appear approximately seven years after the initial measles infection. SSPE causes progressive brain damage which is often fatal. These complications are generally more common in those with existing chronic (long-term) illness, young children (<5 years of age), and adults.

Can measles be prevented?

Measles is a vaccine-preventable disease. In Australia, immunisation against measles is provided as part of the National Immunisation Program (NIP).

  • Children at 12 months - the first dose of measles vaccine is given in combination with mumps and rubella (as MMR vaccine)
  • Children at 18 months - the second dose of measles vaccine is given in combination with mumps, rubella and varicella (chickenpox)

If you were born during or after 1966 and do not have evidence of having received 2 doses of a measles-containing vaccine, you may no longer have immunity against the disease and may need an additional dose vaccination. It is also recommended that any young adolescent or adult who does not have evidence of receiving two doses of a measles-containing vaccines or other evidence of immunity should talk to their doctor about vaccination for measles.

For further information regarding vaccination against measles, speak with your healthcare professional.

How do you treat measles?

There is no specific medical treatment for measles and if infected, the virus has to run its course. 

If you do have symptoms of measles, you should visit your GP for confirmation. They may suggest treating your symptoms with bed rest, fluids, and other appropriate treatments. 

You should also stay home and away from other people, as well as practice good personal hygiene, including using tissues to cover your nose and mouth when you cough and/or sneeze, and regularly washing your hands. This way, you lower the chances of spreading the virus to other people.

In the case of complications of a measles infection, you may require urgent treatment (hospitalisation). 

As there is no cure for measles, the best preventative measure is vaccination. 

Who is at risk of catching the measles virus?

Anybody who has not been vaccinated against the measles virus is at risk of catching the virus and becoming ill. 

In addition to this, people at higher risk of catching the measles virus include:

  • People with existing chronic illness(es)
  • People with weakened immune systems, such as organ transplant recipients or those on chemotherapy
  • People who are travelling overseas from Australia and have not been vaccinated.

VaccineHub offers general information only. Please see a healthcare professional for medical advice

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Sources & Citations

  1. The Australian Immunisation Handbook 10th Edition, 4.9 Measles. Available at (accessed 7 April 2018).
  2. National Immunisation Program Schedule, Australian Government, Department of Health. Available at (accessed 7 April 2018).
  3. Australian Government, Department of Health, Australia’s notifiable disease status, 2014: Annual report of the National Notifiable Diseases Surveillance System (main page). Available at (accessed 7 April 2018).
  4. NSW Government, Department of Health, Measles Fact Sheet. Available at (accessed 7 April 2018)
  5. Victorian Government, Better Health Channel, Measles. Available at (accessed 7 April 2018).
  6. Centers for Disease Control, Measles – Signs and Symptoms. Available at (accessed 7 April 2018).
  7. Centers for Disease Control, Measles – Transmission. Available at (accessed 7 April 2018).
  8. Centers for Disease Control, Measles – Photos of Measles and People with Measles. Available at (accessed 7 April 2018).
  9. Centers for Disease Control, Measles – Complications of Measles. Available at (accessed 7 April 2018).
  10. Centers for Disease Control, Measles – Frequently Asked Questions about Measles in the US. Available at (accessed 7 April 2018).
  11. Australian Government, Department of Health, Number of notifications of all diseases received from State and Territory health authorities, 2017. Available at: (accessed 26 April 2018).
  12. NSW Government, Measles outbreak – April 2017.  Available at (accessed 22 June 2018).

SPANZ.SAPAS.18.04.0133 - Date of preparation May 2018