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We have heard of a few cases of measles in the last few weeks and although the illness is rare here in the UK where most children are vaccinated, it hasn't been eradicated. It is important to be aware of the signs of measles as it can lead to serious complications.

What are the symptoms?

Measles can seem like a cold at first. Your child may start sneezing and coughing, have a runny nose and watery, swollen eyes. However, there are a number of other symptoms that can indicate measles. These may include

  • Greyish-white spots in the mouth and throat
  • red eyes
  • sore throat
  • sensitivity to light
  • a temperature
  • aching limbs
  • tiredness and irritability
  • poor appetite
  • a rash which appears up to four days after the other symptoms. Small spots are often found first behind the ears and around the head and neck, but the spots get bigger and spread across the rest of the body. They are a reddish colour.

How do people catch measles?

Measles is extremely contagious. It spreads very easily when an infected person coughs or sneezes. Tiny droplets are exhaled from the mouth and nose which may then be inhaled by other people. The droplets may settle surfaces where the virus can survive for quite a few hours. This means that anyone touching the surface may pick up the virus and can catch measles. Apparently 90% of people who are not immune to measles will catch it if they live with someone who has been infected. The incubation period for measles is usually one or two weeks, so you will not see any symptoms immediately. Measles is most common in children who are under the age of four.

What should I do if I think my child has measles?

You should see your family doctor if you think that your child may have measles. Your doctor will probably be able to diagnose measles by looking at your child's symptoms.

What treatment will my child be offered?

Treatment is only usually required for severe cases of measles. Most often, the best way to help a child who has measles is to allow them to rest and to ensure that they get plenty of liquids to prevent any risk of dehydration.

Can there be complications?

Measles can be dangerous, particularly in people who have a compromised immune system or those who are malnourished. It can lead to other problems, such as pneumonia, bronchitis and encephalitis, and can even be fatal in a tiny minority of cases.

When can I send my child back to school or nursery after having measles?

Measles is a notifiable disease, which means that your GP will alert your child's school and the local health authority so that other parents can be on the look-out for measles symptoms. Your child will be infectious for up to four days before the measles rash appears and then for five days afterwards, so should not return to school until after this.

What can I do to prevent my child getting measles?

By far the best way to prevent your child from catching measles is to ensure that they are immunised as it is very unlikely that a child who has been immunised will catch measles.

If children who have measles are kept at home for the full five days after the rash appears, this helps to prevent the spread of measles.

What should I do if I am pregnant and come into contact with measles?

If you are expecting a baby and you know you've come into contact with someone who has measles, you should talk to your GP. If you catch measles when you are pregnant this can be passed on to your baby, and can also lead to miscarriage or premature labour. Many adults have either been vaccinated or have had measles in the past. It is advisable to make sure you have the MMR vaccine before getting pregnant if you haven't had it and haven't had measles in the past. You cannot have the vaccine once you are pregnant.
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