Need to talk? Call 1800 882 436.
It's a free call with a maternal child health nurse. *call charges may apply from your mobile

Is it an emergency? Dial 000
If you need urgent medical help, call triple zero immediately.

beginning of content

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

Back To Top

Read more

Immunisation and vaccinations for your child

Vaccinations and immunisation protect babies and children. Read more on why and when to vaccinate your child, and about side effects and costs..

Need more information?

Measles in Australia

Measles is a highly contagious viral illness. Infected people spread measles through coughing and sneezing. The virus can survive in the air and on surfaces for a couple of hours.

Read more on AIHW – Australian Institute of Health and Welfare website

Measles and pregnancy

Find out about measles and pregnancy, if measles could affect your unborn baby, and what to do if you've had contact with someone who has measles.

Read more on Pregnancy, Birth & Baby website

Measles | Health and wellbeing | Queensland Government

Measles is an acute, highly infectious illness caused by the measles virus. Measles can cause serious complications such as pneumonia (lung infection) and encephalitis (inflammation of the brain). It may also cause middle ear infection.

Read more on Queensland Health website

Measles vaccines for Australians | NCIRS

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

Read more on National Centre for Immunisation Research and Surveillance (NCIRS) website

Measles | SA Health

Measles causes middle ear infection and pneumonia and in 1 in 1000 cases, brain infection, often leading to death or permanent brain damage

Read more on SA Health website

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.

Read more on Australian Government Department of Health and Aged Care website

Measles | Australian Government Department of Health and Aged Care

Find out how we define and monitor cases of measles, how you can get vaccinated, and where you can learn more about this disease.

Read more on Australian Government Department of Health and Aged Care website

Hand washing for hygiene | Health and wellbeing | Queensland Government

How to protect yourself from flu, e-coli, measles and other diseases by washing your hands.

Read more on Queensland Health website

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.

Read more on Pregnancy, Birth & Baby website

Mumps in Australia | Australian Institute of Health and Welfare

Mumps is a contagious infection of the salivary glands, caused by the mumps virus.

Read more on AIHW – Australian Institute of Health and Welfare website

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?

Healthdirect Australia acknowledges the Traditional Owners of Country throughout Australia and their continuing connection to land, sea and community. We pay our respects to the Traditional Owners and to Elders both past and present.

This information is for your general information and use only and is not intended to be used as medical advice and should not be used to diagnose, treat, cure or prevent any medical condition, nor should it be used for therapeutic purposes.

The information is not a substitute for independent professional advice and should not be used as an alternative to professional health care. If you have a particular medical problem, please consult a healthcare professional.

Except as permitted under the Copyright Act 1968, this publication or any part of it may not be reproduced, altered, adapted, stored and/or distributed in any form or by any means without the prior written permission of Healthdirect Australia.