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Measles in babies and children

8-minute read

Key facts

  • Measles is a highly contagious illness that causes a rash.
  • Measles is caused by a virus.
  • Measles is spread through person-to-person contact and respiratory droplets caused by coughing and sneezing.
  • Immunisation will stop most children from getting measles.

What is measles?

Measles is a very contagious illness caused by a virus. It can cause serious complications for anyone who becomes infected.

Measles is uncommon in Australia due to our successful measles vaccination program. But measles outbreaks still happen, often due to overseas visitors and returning residents bringing back the virus.

Measles is most often seen in people who aren’t immunised. This includes infants who are too young to be vaccinated.

It’s important to make sure your child is vaccinated on time.

What are the symptoms of measles?

Some early symptoms of measles are:

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

A few days later, the most recognised symptom of measles appears — the rash. The rash starts on the face or upper neck and then spreads to the chest, arms and legs.

Image of measles rash
Measles rash has red, slightly raised spots and may be blotchy but not itchy.

The rash develops with areas of flat discoloured skin and small bumps. It is not itchy. The rash can last up to one week.

A child who is infected might start to show symptoms about 10 days after exposure to the measles virus. They’ll remain infectious until 4 days after their rash appears.

CHECK YOUR SYMPTOMS — Use the Symptom Checker and find out if you need to seek medical help.

How do babies and children catch measles?

Measles is one of the most contagious of all childhood illnesses. It’s spread through person-to-person contact and respiratory droplets caused by coughing and sneezing. The virus can survive in the air and on surfaces for a couple of hours.

Up to 9 out of 10 unvaccinated people who come into contact with someone with measles will get sick.

A person with measles is contagious from about one day before they start to feel unwell. This is 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 can I prevent the spread of measles?

Measles is very contagious so it’s important to take care to limit its spread.

You should keep your child with measles away from school or childcare. Keep them at home until 4 days after the rash appeared.

You can also encourage good hygiene practices to help prevent the spread of measles:

  • hand washing
  • not sharing food and drink
  • coughing and sneezing into your elbow

What if I think my child has measles?

If you think your child may have measles, you should contact your doctor straight away.

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.

FIND A HEALTH SERVICE — The Service Finder can help you find doctors, pharmacies, hospitals and other health services.

How is measles diagnosed?

Your doctor may be able to diagnose your child’s measles from their symptoms and history of possible exposure to measles.

They may confirm the diagnosis with:

Measles is considered a notifiable disease. If your child has measles, your doctor will notify your local public health unit. They may ask to talk with you to try and find out where your child caught measles. They may also ask who your child has been in contact with (contact tracing). This helps limit the spread of measles and protects your community.

People at particular risk from measles are unvaccinated pregnant women and young babies (those under 12 months of age).

How do I care for my child with measles?

There is no specific treatment for measles.

Your child should:

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.

How can I protect my child from getting measles?

The best protection against measles is vaccination. The Australian National Immunisation Program offers free vaccinations for all Australian children.

Your child should receive 2 doses of measles vaccine. This should happen at:

  • 12 months of age — as part of the ‘measles, mumps, rubella vaccine’ vaccine (MMR)
  • 18 months of age — as part of the measles-mumps-rubella-varicella vaccine (MMRV)

What complications can occur with measles?

About 1 in 10 people with measles have complications.

Children under the age of 5 years are at higher risk of complications.

Sometimes children may get a secondary infection. This may be an ear infection or diarrhoea and vomiting. Other complications can include:

  • pneumonia (severe lung infection) — about 1 in 15 children
  • encephalitis (inflammation of the brain) — about 1 in 1,000 children

Of those children that develop encephalitis, about 4 in 10 will have a permanent brain injury.

Resources and support

Are you pregnant or planning a pregnancy?

Learn more about how measles during pregnancy can affect you and your baby.

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.

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

Last reviewed: June 2023


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Measles in Australia

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Measles and pregnancy

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Measles | Health and wellbeing | Queensland Government

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Measles vaccines for Australians | NCIRS

Measles vaccines for Australians – Fact sheet [PDF – 137 KB] July 2019

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Measles vaccine | Australian Government Department of Health and Aged Care

Information about measles vaccines, who it is recommended for, how and where to get vaccinated. If you're eligible, you can get the measles vaccine for free under the National Immunisation Program.

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Serious childhood rashes

A rash on your baby’s skin may indicate a serious condition, especially if they also have a high temperature, cough or swollen neck glands. Learn more here.

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Mumps in Australia | Australian Institute of Health and Welfare

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Call us and speak to a Maternal Child Health Nurse for personal advice and guidance.

Need further advice or guidance from our maternal child health nurses?

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