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Measles is a highly infectious viral illness spread through the air in droplets of saliva when an infected person coughs or sneezes.

The most distinctive symptom of measles are red-brown spots on the body, and you may also suffer a fever and a cough.

Symptoms of Measles include:

BulletCold-like symptoms (runny nose, watery eyes, swollen eyelids, sneezing)
BulletRed eyes and sensitivity to light
BulletA high temperature
BulletTiny greyish-white spots (called Koplik's spots) in the mouth and throat
BulletTiredness and lack of energy
BulletAches and pains
BulletLack of appetite
BulletDry cough

A few days after these symptoms, a red-brown spotty rash appears and lasts for up to eight days. The spots usually start behind the ears and around the head and neck. After a few days it spreads to the rest of the body. When the spots first appear they are usually quite small but often they get larger and join up together.

There are many similar rashes children might develop but they are not necessarily measles. You should see your GP if your child does have a rash you suspect to be measles.

If you are infected with measles you won't notice symptoms until about 10 days after you have picked it up. Symptoms usually last up to two weeks and you are most infectious before the rash appears. Once you have had measles your immune system develops antibodies to fight off the illness if you ever come in to contact with it again. Therefore you will not get it more than once as you are immune to it.

In some cases, measles can develop into pneumonia, ear and eye infections, and croup (an infection of the lungs and throat). An even rarer complication is known as encephalitis (when the brain becomes inflamed). There are over 30 million cases of measles worldwide every year, but the number of cases in the UK is very low.

MMR Vaccine

In the UK children are routinely vaccinated against measles as part of the MMR jab. The jab involves injecting a tiny dose of the virus into the body to encourage the immune system to produce antibodies. You will not be infected enough to show symptoms but you will develop immunity against the disease.

Thanks to the MMR jab, cases of measles in the UK are very rare. However, at one point there was suspicion that the MMR vaccine caused autism, so many parents decided not to get their children immunised. Due to this, the number of cases of measles in the UK increased rapidly. Numerous studies have been carried out to investigate the link between MMR and autism, but the results show there is absolutely no link at all.

Treatment of Measles

There is no specific treatment for measles and in normal cases the symptoms disappear after a week or so. Rest and simple measures to reduce a fever are all that are needed for a full recovery:
BulletKeep child's temperature fairly low, but not too cold.
BulletLiquid baby paracetamol, or ibuprofen, can be taken to relieve fever and aches and pains. Do not give aspirin to children under 16.
BulletClosing curtains or dimming lights can help reduce light sensitivity.
BulletUse damp cotton wool to clean away any crustiness around the eyes. Make sure you use different pieces of cotton wool for each eye.
BulletPlace a bowl of water in the room to make the atmosphere more humid to help relieve a cough. Cough medicines are usually not beneficial but it may help to mix lemon juice and honey in a glass of warm water for children over one year old. Honey should not be given to younger babies.
BulletEnsure your child drinks as much as possible to prevent dehydration.

In some cases, a secondary bacterial infection develops. If this happens you will probably be prescribed antibiotics. In severe cases, particularly when there are more serious complications, hospital treatment may be required.

Measles Complications

Children with weakened immune systems, children under the age of five, or children with a poor diet are more likely to develop complications from measles.
Some of the common complications of measles are:
BulletEye infection (conjunctivitis)
BulletInflammation of the voicebox (laryngitis)
BulletInner ear infection
BulletFits (febrile convulsions).

Less common complications of measles are listed below:
BulletHepatitis (liver infection)
BulletEncephalitis (inflammation of the brain) which can be fatal, so you should watch for drowsiness, headache, and vomiting
BulletLow platelet (white blood cell) count - known medically as thrombocytopenia, which affects the blood ability to clot
BulletBronchitis and croup (infection of the airways) characterised by a hacking, or barking cough.
BulletSquint - the virus may affect the nerves and muscles of the eye.

In rare cases, measles can lead to the following conditions:
BulletSerious eye disorders which can lead to blindness
BulletProblems with the heart and nervous system
BulletA serious brain condition called subacute sclerosing panencephalitis (SSPE) which is fatal. Sometimes it takes several years for this to develop but it only occurs in 1 in 100,000 cases of measles.

Measles Prevention

The most effective way of preventing your child from getting measles is to get them vaccinated with the MMR jab. The first MMR vaccination should be given when your child is about 13 months old, and a booster jab should be given when they are between three and five years old. Only 1% of children who get both the MMR jabs remain at risk of contracting the illness.

If you think that your child has been infected by measles, you should isolate them from other children for at least five days until after the rash has appeared.

A baby can be given the MMR vaccination from the age of six months, so if you are worried your baby will come into contact with the infection and they haven't yet been vaccinated, they can be given the injection to protect them.

If the mother has had measles in the past, it usually means the baby is immune because it received anitbodies in the womb. However, if the mother has not had measles and she has a baby under six months old who might become infected, the baby can be given an injection of human normal immunoglobulin (HNIG). HNIG is not a vaccine, it is a special concentration of antibodies which can give short term, but immediate, protection against measles.

If you catch measles when you are pregnant it can pass on to your baby and cause serious harm. You may suffer a miscarriage, premature labour or your baby might be born with a very low weight. The MMR jab can not be given during pregnancy so if you are planning to get pregnant, you should see your GP to make sure you are immune to measles. If you have not been vaccinated against it, they will arrange for you to have the injection.

June 2011
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