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Measles in babies and children

5-minute read

What is measles?

Measles is a highly contagious viral illness that can cause serious complications for anyone who becomes infected. The broad uptake of measles vaccination through the Australian National Immunisation Program means that the disease is now quite rare in Australia.

However, outbreaks still occur, with overseas visitors and returning residents bringing back the virus, so it is important to make sure your child is vaccinated on time.

What are the symptoms of measles?

The most recognised symptom of measles is a characteristic rash, which appears after a few days of general illness with fever. The rash develops with flat discoloured skin and small bumps but is not itchy. It starts on the face or upper neck and then spreads over the body.

Some early signs and symptoms of measles include:

  • fever
  • conjunctivitis (sore, red eyes)
  • symptoms of a cold (runny nose, sneezing, feeling tired and generally unwell)
  • cough

A child who is infected might start to show symptoms about 10 to 12 days after exposure to the measles virus. The symptoms can last for up to 14 days.

If your child has measles, they may not want to eat or they may have diarrhoea or swollen lymph nodes.

How does measles spread?

Measles is one of the most contagious of all childhood illnesses. If someone is in the same room as an infected person, this alone may be enough for them to contract the virus, and 9 out of every 10 unvaccinated people who come into contact with the virus will get measles.

A person who has the measles virus will be contagious from about one day before they start to feel unwell or about 4 days before the rash starts. They will need to stay away from all unvaccinated people for at least 4 days after the rash first appeared.

If you child has been near someone with measles, keep them at home until you have spoken with your doctor.

How do I reduce the chance of my child catching measles?

On-time vaccination is the best way to prevent measles. The Australian National Immunisation Program provides free vaccination for all Australian children. Your child should receive 2 doses of measles vaccine from 12 months of age, with at least 4 weeks between doses.

If your child is over 6 months and you are travelling to a country where measles is present, your doctor may be able to give them an extra dose to protect them. This has been shown to be safe.

Read more

Immunisation and vaccinations for your child

Immunisation and vaccinations for your child

Immunisation is a simple, safe and effective way of protecting children agaist certain diseases. Discover more about childhood vaccinations.

What if I think my child has measles?

If you think your child may have measles, you should contact your doctor immediately. 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. Your doctor may be able to diagnose your child’s measles from their symptoms and will confirm with a sample taken from their nose or throat or from a urine test. Sometimes they might need a blood test too.

Measles is considered a notifiable disease and contact tracing is necessary to prevent spread and to protect more vulnerable people, such as those with lower immunity. This group might include people who are being treated for cancer and babies who are too young to have been vaccinated.

If your child has measles, your doctor will notify the public health unit and they may ask to talk with you to try and find where your child caught measles, and to identify anyone your child has been in contact with. This way, they can limit further spread as well as offer advice, treatment and/or vaccination to other people at risk of infection too.

Make sure you let your doctor know if there is anyone in your household who is unwell — for example, someone who is taking medicines such as high-dose steroids or who is receiving chemotherapy.

Other people at particular risk include pregnant women (if they haven’t been vaccinated) and young babies who have not yet been vaccinated, such as infants under 12 months of age.

How do I treat my child with measles?

There is no specific treatment for measles. Your child should rest, drink plenty of fluids and can take paracetamol for their fever and discomfort­ — but be sure to check the dosage instructions on the pack.

You should look out for complications. Ear infections, pneumonia (severe lung infection) and swelling of the brain, which may be life-threatening, may also occur.

Children under the age of 5 are at higher risk of complications, as are adults, particularly those with other chronic illnesses.

Measles can be a very serious illness, with some children needing to go to hospital. If you are concerned in any way, don’t hesitate to contact your doctor.

Are you pregnant or planning a pregnancy?
Learn more about how measles during pregnancy can affect you and your baby.

Learn more here about the development and quality assurance of healthdirect content.

Last reviewed: April 2021

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