What is measles?
Measles is a contagious illness caused by a virus. It can cause serious complications for anyone who becomes infected.
Measles is now quite rare in Australia due to a successful vaccination program. But measles outbreaks still occur. For this reason, it’s important to make sure that everyone in your family is protected.
What are the symptoms of measles?
Some early signs and symptoms of measles are:
- conjunctivitis (sore, red eyes)
- cold symptoms (runny nose, sneezing, feeling tired and generally unwell)
After a few days of general illness the most well-recognised symptom of measles appears — the rash.
The rash has flat areas of discoloured skin and small bumps. It’s not itchy. It usually starts on your face or upper neck. It then spreads over your body and to your arms and legs.
The rash can last up to one week.
You might start to show symptoms about 10 days after exposure to the measles virus. You’ll remain infectious until 4 days after your rash appears.
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How is measles spread?
Measles is one of the most contagious of all preventable diseases. Most unvaccinated people who have contact with someone with measles will get sick.
Measles is spread through:
- person-to-person contact
- respiratory droplets, from coughing and sneezing
The virus can survive in the air and on surfaces for a couple of hours.
When you have measles, you're contagious from the day before you start to feel unwell. You remain contagious until 4 days after the rash appears.
When should I see my doctor?
If you think you may have measles, you should call your doctor or midwife straight away. You should also speak with your doctor if you have been in contact with someone with measles.
Do not go to the clinic since you don’t want to infect people in the waiting room. Rather, call your doctor and they will let you know the safest way to see them.
Measles can be a very serious illness, with some people needing to go to hospital.
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What are the complications of measles?
Adults are at higher risk of developing complications than children. Pregnant women are at higher risk than the average adult — particularly of developing pneumonia.
If you are concerned, don’t hesitate to call your doctor. Measles can be a very serious illness, with some people needing to go to hospital.
How can measles affect my pregnancy?
If you are pregnant, you should not be vaccinated for measles until after you've had your baby.
How can measles affect my unborn baby?
Having measles in pregnancy is not linked to an increased risk to your baby of congenital anomalies (birth differences).
Vaccinations and pregnancy
Some vaccinations are recommended before pregnancy, while others you can safely have during pregnancy.
What if I have been in contact with someone with measles?
If you have been in contact with someone with measles you should call your midwife or doctor straight away.
It's also important to:
- look out for any symptoms
- stay away from other people to stop the spread of the virus
- ask your doctor if your family members need to be vaccinated
If your doctor thinks you may have measles, they will organise some tests.
Is there any treatment for measles?
There is no specific treatment for measles.
It's a good idea to:
- drink plenty of fluids
- take paracetamol for fever — be sure to check the instructions on the packet
It’s important to note you may have to avoid other pain-relief medicines during pregnancy.
How can I prevent measles?
The best way to protect yourself against measles is through vaccination. However, vaccination during pregnancy is not advised.
The measles vaccine is given as a combined vaccination, either as:
- measles-mumps-rubella (MMR)
- measles-mumps-rubella-varicella (MMRV)
These vaccines are live attenuated vaccines. There are concerns that if they’re given during pregnancy, they may affect the health of your baby.
I’m planning a pregnancy — should I be vaccinated?
If you are looking to become pregnant you should see your doctor for a pre-conception health check.
If you have never had measles and aren’t vaccinated, now is a good time to get vaccinated.
Your partner might also want to consider getting vaccinated. The vaccine is recommended for all adults who have never had measles or previously been vaccinated.
The timing of your pre-pregnancy vaccination is important. It’s recommended that 2 doses of measles vaccine are given at least 4 weeks apart.
You should avoid pregnancy for 28 days after vaccination. So, you shouldn’t stop contraception until at least a month after your second dose.
There is no risk to pregnant women from contact with people who have recently been vaccinated.
Resources and support
Speak to a maternal child health nurse
Call Pregnancy, Birth and Baby to speak to a maternal child health nurse on 1800 882 436 or video call. Available 7am to midnight (AET), 7 days a week.
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Last reviewed: June 2023