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Measles is an infection caused by a virus, which causes an illness displaying a characteristic skin rash known as an exanthem. Measles is also sometimes called rubeola, five-day measles, or hard measles.
Measles is a very contagious disease primarily characterized by cough, runny nose, red eyes (conjunctivitis), and a characteristic rash on the skin and inside of the cheeks. The most common complications are ear infection and diarrhea, although more serious complications can include pneumonia, meningitis, or encephalitis. Measles is fatal (due to complications) in about two out of every 1,000 cases.
Measles infections appear all over the world. Prior the effective immunization program used in the early
Measles is caused by a type of virus called a paramyxovirus. It is an extremely contagious infection, spread through the tiny droplets that may spray into the air when an individual carrying the virus sneezes or coughs. About 85 percent of those people exposed to the virus will become infected with it. About 95 percent of those people infected with the virus will develop the illness called measles. Once someone is infected with the virus, it takes about seven to 18 days before he or she actually becomes ill. The most contagious time period is the three to five days before symptoms begin through about four days after the characteristic measles rash has begun to appear.
The first signs of measles infection are fever; extremely runny nose; red, runny eyes; and a cough. A few days later, a rash appears in the mouth, particularly on the mucous membrane that lines the cheeks. This rash consists of tiny white dots (like grains of salt or sand) on a reddish bump. These are called Koplik's spots and are unique to measles infection. The throat becomes red, swollen, and sore.
A couple of days after the appearance of the Koplik's spots, the measles rash begins. It appears in a characteristic progression, from the head, face, and neck, to the trunk, then abdomen, and next out along the arms and legs. The rash starts out as flat, red patches but eventually develops some bumps. The rash may be somewhat itchy. When the rash begins to appear, the fever usually climbs higher, sometimes reaching as high as 105°F (40.5°C). There may be nausea, vomiting, diarrhea, and multiple swollen lymph nodes. The cough is usually more problematic at this point, and the patient feels awful. The rash usually lasts about five days. As it fades, it turns a brownish color and eventually the affected skin becomes dry and flaky.
Many patients (about 5–15%) develop other complications. Bacterial infections, such as ear infections, sinus infections, and pneumonia are common, especially in children. Other viral infections may also strike the patient, including croup, bronchitis, laryngitis, or viral pneumonia. Inflammation of the liver, appendix, intestine, or lymph nodes within the abdomen may cause other complications. Rarely, inflammations of the heart or kidneys, a drop in platelet count (causing episodes of difficult-to-control bleeding), or reactivation of an old tuberculosis infection can occur.
An extremely serious complication of measles infection is swelling of the brain. Called encephalitis, this condition can occur up to several weeks after the basic measles symptoms have resolved. About one out of every thousand patients develops this complication, and about 10 to 15 percent of these patients die. Symptoms include fever, headache, sleepiness, seizures, and coma. Long-term problems following recovery from measles encephalitis may include seizures and mental retardation.
A very rare complication of measles can occur up to ten years following the initial infection. Called subacute sclerosing panencephalitis, this is a slowly progressing, smoldering swelling and destruction of the entire brain. It is most common among people who had measles infection prior to the age of two years. Symptoms include changes in personality, decreased intelligence with accompanying school problems, decreased coordination, involuntary jerks and movements of the body. The disease progresses so that the individual becomes increasingly dependent, ultimately becoming bedridden and unaware of his or her surroundings. Blindness may develop, and the temperature may spike (rise rapidly) and fall unpredictably as the brain structures responsible for temperature regulation are affected. Death is inevitable.
Author Info: Rosalyn Carson-DeWitt MD, Rebecca J. Frey PhD, Thomson Gale, Gale, Detroit, Gale Encyclopedia of Children's Health, 2006This feature is for informational purposes only and should not be used to replace the care and information received from your healthcare provider. Please consult a healthcare professional with any health concerns you may have.
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