Measles is caused by a virus. It is spread by:

  • Direct contact with nose or throat droplets of people who have measles, such as through kissing
  • Droplets traveling through the air, such as with coughs or sneezes—this is less common

Measles can be spread:

  • 1 to 2 days before symptoms appear
  • 3 to 5 days before the rash appears
  • Up to 4 days after the rash appears

Risk Factors

Things that may raise the risk of measles are:

  • Going to places where measles is common
  • Not getting the measles vaccine



Measles symptoms start 10 to 12 days after being exposed to the virus. They are:

  • Fever, often high
  • Runny nose
  • Sneezing
  • Pain
  • Red eyes
  • Hacking cough
  • Sore throat
  • Lack of energy
  • Very small whitish spots inside the mouth
  • Raised, itchy red to brownish rash

Symptoms get better 7 to 10 days from the start of the rash.


The doctor will ask about symptoms and past health. A physical exam will be done. This is enough to make the diagnosis.



The goal of treatment is to manage symptoms until the virus passes. Since measles is caused by a virus it cannot be treated with antibiotics.

Ways to manage symptoms include:

  • Supportive care, such as gargling with warm salt water and drinking plenty of fluids
  • Medicines to ease pain, such as acetaminophen


Getting vaccinated is the best way to prevent measles. It comes as a single vaccine or with:

  • Mumps and rubella vaccine (MMR)
  • Mumps, rubella, and varicella (chickenpox) vaccine (MMRV)

Some people may be given a vaccine within 3 days of exposure. This can prevent or lessen symptoms.

Immune globulin may also be given to some unvaccinated people within 6 days of exposure. This is often for infants and pregnant women.

This content is reviewed regularly and is updated when new and relevant evidence is made available. This information is neither intended nor implied to be a substitute for professional medical advice. Always seek the advice of your physician or other qualified health provider prior to starting any new treatment or with questions regarding a medical condition.

Edits to original content made by Denver Health.