Measles in Kids: Symptoms & Prevention

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The recent cases of measles in Chicago has many parents and caregivers concerned. Dr. Ayelet Rosenthal, Attending Physician in Lurie Children's Division of Pediatric Infectious Diseases, shares what you need to know about this infectious disease. 

What is measles?

Measles is a highly contagious virus that can be spread from direct contact, including sneezing and coughing through the air. This disease can cause a rash, fever, cough, runny nose and pink eye. Measles (also called rubeola) is caused by a virus, so there's no specific medical treatment for it. 

Complications that can accompany measles are pneumonia (infection in the lungs) and encephalitis (swelling of the brain) and even death. Measles can affect children and adults of all ages. Children younger than 5 years and those with weakened immune systems are at higher risk of complications.  

“The best way to control measles is by prevention before any exposure takes place with the use of immunizations. Immunization programs, when fully implemented, are very effective,” says Dr Rosenthal. 

The Cause of Measles in Children

“Measles is one of the most highly contagious infectious diseases and the virus can be spread simply by being around an infected person who is coughing and sneezing. A person with measles is contagious even a few days before developing a visible rash” says Dr. Rosenthal.

Areas around the world and in the U.S. where immunizations are not common practice allow the disease to spread to other people and places. "We know that vaccines work and are highly effective in preventing measles and its spread. This is why it is very important to vaccinate your child. When vaccinating your child you protect them as well as other people in the community”. “ 

“The measles virus does mutate over time but at a very slow rate. This slow rate means that the measles vaccine continues to remain highly effective over time,” said Dr. Rosenthal. 

How to Prevent Measles

The best way to prevent measles is to ensure your child is immunized. The first dose of measles vaccine is given at 12 months of age with the measles, mumps, and rubella (MMR) vaccine. A second dose is given around the ages of 4 and 6 years. “Two doses of the measles vaccine (MMR) are used to ensure maximum protection against the measles virus that lasts for a long time. One dose of the vaccine is 93% effective against measles and two doses are 97% effective against measles. This means that if you are not yet able to get the second dose of the vaccine – you are still protected,” said Dr. Rosenthal. 

Children under the age of 6 months and some immunocompromised patients can not get the MMR vaccine. When other people get vaccinated, they protect not only themselves but also the populations that can not get the vaccine.  

Family members and those who are in close contact with children who can not get the measles vaccine should be up to date with their measles vaccine in order to protect the young or immunocompromised child. If the child is exposed to a person with measles, you should contact your primary care provider as soon as possible to check if they need a protective medication that can be given after exposure.  

“Healthy people who got two doses of measles vaccine are considered protected for life. In some situations, such as in people with a very weakened immune system, immunity/protection might not be optimal even if they got the vaccine in the past,” said Dr. Rosenthal. 

Because there is no specific treatment, it’s even more crucial to be vaccinated.  Speak to your primary care provider about vaccines to determine the best schedule for your family. 

Symptoms of Measles

The most recognizable symptom of measles is the rash, which starts on the face and travels down the rest of the body as the disease progresses. Other symptoms of measles include:

  • High fever – can spike above 104 degrees
  • Cough
  • Runny nose
  • Watery eyes
  • Koplik spots (white spots inside the mouth)
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How do I confirm my child was vaccinated?

Your child’s primary care provider will have your child’s vaccine records on file. If your child is younger than 4-6 years old, to be fully vaccinated, children need to have one dose of MMR after 12 months of age. A second dose is needed at age 4-6 years.

If I or my child have a known exposure and we are vaccinated, what actions should we take? 

If you have been exposed to measles, you should contact your primary care provider to determine your risk and if further action is needed. In most cases, no precautions will be needed. If your vaccines are not up to date because you have not yet gotten the second recommended dose, or if you are severely immunocompromised, there will be additional actions needed to protect you.

If I or my child are not vaccinated and have a known exposure, what actions should we take? 

If you have been exposed to measles, you should contact your primary care provider to determine your risk and if further action is needed. If you have not been vaccinated, there are additional actions needed to protect you and others. That will include avoiding contact with others for the 21 day period after the exposure. That may also include giving an MMR vaccine or other protective medicine. These measures are very important if you are severely immunocompromised.

How do I treat measles?

Because measles is caused by a virus, there is no specific medication or way to manage its symptoms. After infection, complications can include pneumonia (infection of the lungs) and encephalitis (swelling of the brain). There is no way to predict the severity of the symptoms. Sometimes severe symptoms may result in hospitalizations with intensive support. 

If you have any questions about the vaccination process or measles itself, don’t hesitate to reach out to your primary care provider.

How do you test for measles? Where would I go to get tested if I suspect I have measles? 

Testing for measles is generally not needed unless your physician suspects that you have measles based on your symptoms, exposure and measles immunity. Talk to your primary care provider to determine if you need testing. If you have a medical emergency, go to the emergency room (ER). If you think you have measles, call the primary care office or the ER ahead of your arrival so they can instruct you and safely prepare to avoid exposure. You will also need to wear a mask while in the medical facility.   

How long am I contagious?

Measles is contagious starting four days before the onset of the measles rash and until four days after the onset of the measles rash.

How can I vaccinate my child? We don’t have a primary care provider.

Lurie Children’s offers several primary care locations for your child's healthcare needs. Learn more about our primary care services and to schedule a primary care appointment at a Lurie Children's facility.

Commercial pharmacies in Illinois can give measles-mumps-rubella (MMR) vaccines to those age 7 years and older. Vaccines may be available to some urgent care facilities- you should call ahead to confirm. Many local provider's offices will see new patients and give vaccines. Your local health department may also have vaccine clinics. Visit the Chicago Department of Health for information on immunization clinics. 

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