Measles: The Facts


Measles particles which can infect people.

With measles hitting the headlines and the number of cases on the rise here in the UK and abroad, it’s extremely important that we understand the facts about the disease, its symptoms and how it can be prevented.

Worryingly, in the first three months of 2019, more than 110,000 measles cases were reported worldwide – up nearly 300 per cent from the same period last year.

So, what is measles and why is it making a comeback?

What is Measles?

Measles is a highly infectious viral disease that is present around the world and is spread by sneezing, coughing or direct contact with respiratory secretions.

What are the symptoms?

Measles usually starts with flu-like symptoms approximately 10 days after becoming infected. Initial symptoms may include:

  • Cold like symptoms such as a runny nose, sneezing and a cough
  • High temperature or fever
  • Muscle aches
  • Sore, red, watery, inflamed eyes that may be sensitive to light
  • Loss of appetite
  • Tiredness, irritability and general lack of energy
  • Small, greyish white spots in the mouth

Not everyone that has measles will get spots in the mouth, but if they occur in addition to the other symptoms above, it is highly likely they have the condition.

These symptoms are typically followed a few days later by the measles rash, a red-brown blotchy rash that usually starts on the head or upper neck, before spreading outwards to the rest of the body.

For most people, measles tends to last around 7 to 10 days in total. However, complications can occur and measles continues to be one of the leading causes of death among young children.

The rash

  • Made up of small red-brown, slightly raised or flat spots that may join together into larger blotchy patches on the skin
  • Tends to appear first on the head or neck before spreading across the rest of the body
  • It can be itchy for some people
  • Looks similar to other childhood conditions such as slapped cheek syndrome, roseola or rubella

However, if the person has been fully vaccinated (received 2 doses of the MMR vaccine) or had measles before, the rash is unlikely to be caused by measles.

Who can get measles?

Anyone can get measles if they haven’t been vaccinated or haven’t had it before, although it is most common in young children.


There is no specific treatment for measles, but it usually improves within 7-10 days.

It’s recommended that anyone who suspects they have the symptoms, seek medical advice immediately, and avoid work or school for a minimum of 4 days to reduce the risk of spreading the infection. Parents of children who are suspected of having measles should call NHS 111 for advice, or their GP in the first instance, rather than presenting to their surgery or A+E department. This is because it is highly contagious and could be easily spread to other people. Your doctor or the NHS advisor will be able to advise you what to do next.

Why is measles on the rise?

Measles has spread in communities which do not have access to available vaccines or people who have opted out of vaccines on behalf of their children, making them more susceptible to preventable diseases. Worryingly, measles cases are also on the rise in those who cannot be vaccinated, such as young babies under 12 months of age, and those with immune disorders who cannot receive a live vaccine. This is why it’s important to have 90-95% of the population vaccinated or immune to the disease – we call this ‘herd immunity’. These high levels of immunity in the community protect everyone, but especially the most vulnerable.

Advice for travellers

This disease is still common around the world and can be found in Asia, Africa, the Indian sub-continent and South America. Most recently, there have been outbreaks of measles in many developed countries such as the Australia, US, Canada, New Zealand and numerous European countries, such as France, Germany and here in the UK. The risk of contracting measles is greater when living or working with local people or travelling for large gatherings, for example sporting and music events, due to the fact it is so contagious. It is especially contagious prior to the rash appearing, before people even know they have it.

The two vaccines that protect against measles are combined with mumps and rubella (MMR). The MMR vaccine is usually given to children as part of the national childhood schedule, at 12-13 months old and prior to starting school. Two doses of vaccine give long-lasting protection against all three diseases in the vast majority of people.

Individuals should check with their GP to ensure that they have received two doses of MMR vaccination prior to travel particularly to areas where the risk of measles is high. Previous infection with measles, mumps or rubella provides lifelong immunity against that particular disease.

Here at London Travel Clinic, our travel health experts are always on hand to offer advice on all infectious diseases, including measles. You can book an appointment at one of our travel vaccination clinics today to ensure you are protected against measles whilst travelling abroad.

Article last reviewed on 15/05/2019 by:

Amanda Yerby RN
Clinical Director for NHS Programmes

Having gained a Bachelor of Nursing degree from the University of South Australia, Amanda worked in acute healthcare, specialising in general medical and emergency care. She has spent the past 14 years specialising in travel health and primary care, gaining extensive experience in childhood and travel immunisations, both within the private sector and the NHS.

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