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How Dangerous Is Measles? Can Measles Kill You?

Ask a Doctor

How dangerous is measles? Chicken pox isn’t that serious and every kid gets that and it’s no big deal. Is measles basically the same? If that’s the case, why bother with the MMR vaccine? Or can measles kill you?

Doctor’s Response

Measles can kill, but is rarely fatal. Measles of either type usually clears up on its own in seven to 10 days. Once a person has had a case of the measles, they are typically immune for life. Complications are rare but may be serious. This is the reason why health care professionals recommend vaccination.

There are two types of measles, each caused by a different virus. Although both produce a rash and fever, they are different diseases. When most people use the term measles, they are referring to the first condition below.

  • The rubeola virus causes "red measles," also known as "hard measles" or just "measles." Although most people recover without problems, rubeola can lead to pneumonia or inflammation of the brain (encephalitis).
  • The rubella virus causes "German measles," also known as "three-day measles." This is usually a milder disease than red measles. However, this virus can cause significant birth defects if an infected pregnant woman passes the virus to her unborn child.

Although red measles is often a mild disease, a few serious complications may occur. Red measles makes people more vulnerable to pneumonia and bacterial ear infections. Pneumonia as a complication of measles is especially serious in infants and is responsible for most deaths in this age group. Inflammation of the brain (encephalitis) occurs about once in every thousand cases of measles and is a serious complication that can be fatal.

Red measles is particularly severe in people with weakened immune systems, including people who are malnourished or have HIV.

The most feared complication of rubella is "congenital rubella," which occurs when an infected pregnant woman passes the virus to her unborn child. Among other problems and birth defects, affected infants may have cataracts, heart defects, hearing impairment, and learning disabilities. The risk of transmission is highest early in pregnancy. The virus may also cause miscarriage or stillbirth.

There is no specific antiviral treatment or cure for measles. Children should stay at home and out of school until cleared to return by their health care professional. Health researchers have noticed that some children in underdeveloped countries or those throughout the globe who develop a severe case of measles have low vitamin A blood levels and seem to have a reduction of their symptoms if given vitamin A supplementation.

But you likely won’t have to worry about any of these possible complications if you received the MMR vaccine, which is the safest and best way to prevent measles. Because of widespread vaccination of children, both kinds of measles occur much less often than in the past. However, recently there have been a number of well-publicized outbreaks in communities around the United States, including an active 2019 outbreak.

In the United States in 2017, there were 118 rubeola cases in the United States, and the majority of those affected were unimmunized. Outbreaks in the U.S. continue, with up to 90% due to importation of measles from another country, including many European countries. Due to different vaccination policies than followed in the U.S., measles is still common in Europe, Asia, Africa, and the Pacific Island states.

Examples of other outbreaks include a major outbreak in France in 2011 that involved more than 15,000 people. In 2014, there were 667 U.S. documented cases of rubeola. In 2015, a multi-state outbreak originated in a California amusement park, likely due to an international traveler. From Jan. 1, 2018, to July 14, 2018, rubeola reportedly infected 107 people from 21 states and the District of Columbia.

For more information, read our full medical article on measles.

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Reviewed on 5/3/2019
References
American Academy of Pediatrics. "Measles (Rubeola)." In: Kimberlin DW, Brady MT, Jackson MA, Long SS, eds. Red Book: 2018 Report of the Committee on Infectious Diseases. 31st ed. Itasca, IL: American Academy of Pediatrics, 2018: 537-550; 705-710.

American Academy of Pediatrics. "Rubella." In: Kimberlin DW, Brady MT, Jackson MA, Long SS, eds. Red Book: 2018 Report of the Committee on Infectious Diseases. 31st ed. Itasca, IL: American Academy of Pediatrics, 2018: 705-710.

United States. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. "Measles -- United States, 2011." MMWR 61.15 Apr. 20, 2012: 253-257.
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