What is measles?

Measles is a very contagious disease that causes a red rash and fever.

Measles is a serious disease because it can lead to:

  • pneumonia and other infections of the airways
  • swelling of the brain (encephalitis), which can cause a brain injury
  • infection of the middle ear
  • adverse effects on pregnant women and their babies
  • death.

About one in 15 infected people get pneumonia, and one in 1,000 develops brain swelling.

For every 10 people who develop brain swelling, between two and four people will develop a brain injury  and one will die.

Measles is caused by the measles virus.

What are the symptoms of measles?

Measles symptoms include:

  • fever
  • generally feeling unwell
  • tiredness
  • runny nose
  • dry cough
  • sore, red eyes (conjunctivitis)
  • red rash.

Symptoms usually start about 10 to 12 days after catching the virus, and last for about 14 days. The rash often starts on the face or hairline, and spreads to the rest of the body quickly. The rash is not itchy, and disappears after about one week.

If measles leads to a more serious disease, other symptoms will develop, depending on which part of the body is affected.

Who is at risk from measles?

Anyone who has not been immunised or has not previously had measles is at risk of getting the disease.

Measles is not common in Australia, but it is still important to be immunised. Measles can be brought into Australia by someone who has been overseas.

People whose immune system is compromised are also at risk.

How do you get measles?

Measles spreads when:

  • an infected person coughs or sneezes and another person breathes it in
  • you have direct contact with fluid from a person’s coughs or sneezes
  • you touch something that has the measles virus on it, then touch your own nose or mouth.

Measles is so contagious that around nine out of 10 people who come in contact with the virus and are not immunised will get measles. Measles spreads easily through families, workplaces, childcare centres and schools.

How do you prevent measles?

Vaccination is a safe and effective way to protect against measles.

Measles vaccines protect you from getting infected and prevent serious disease. For more information on measles immunisation, see Measles immunisation service.

To stop the disease spreading, people who have measles need to stay away from childcare, school, work or other places. Your doctor will tell you when you are no longer infectious.

People who have not been vaccinated against measles and have been in contact with a person who has measles should seek medical advice. You should stay away from childcare, preschool, school and work. Your doctor will tell you how long you need to be excluded for.  

How do you know if you have measles?

If you think you or one of your family members has measles, see your doctor. It is important to let the receptionist know of your concern so that you can be separated from other people in the waiting room.

Your doctor will ask about your symptoms and whether you have been in contact with someone who has measles. If your doctor thinks you have measles, they will do a swab test from the back of your nose or a urine test to confirm the diagnosis. Sometimes they will do a blood test.

How do you get treated for measles?

Most people recover completely from measles without treatment.

If you have measles, you should:

  • get plenty of rest
  • drink plenty of fluids
  • take paracetamol if you need to.

People with a serious case of measles may need to go to hospital. They may be given antibiotics to treat any extra bacterial infections.

More information


If you need advice or more information about immunisation, go to our Immunisation contacts page.

Last updated: 
11 December 2017