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Measles outbreak in Australia

Measles: How to Identify, Treat, and Shield Against It

, by AussiePharmaDirect, 9 min reading time

In the annals of human history, few diseases have held as notorious a reputation as measles. References to the disease can be traced as far back as the 9th century, with Arabic physicians offering some of the earliest documented descriptions. Yet, it wasn't until the 18th century that measles was clinically distinguished from smallpox. Thanks to vaccines and the marvels of modern science, measles is no longer endemic in many parts of the world. 

But why do we still get measles outbreaks, especially now that there are recent measles cases reported in Australia?

This is a question that we’re going to explore, including a myriad of related topics about the persistence of measles in our modern world. Plus, we’ll provide essential tips on identifying measles symptoms, discuss available treatments, and emphasise the critical role of prevention.

What is measles?

Measles, an acute viral respiratory illness, is also known as rubeola. It mainly infects children and can be potentially fatal. It is primarily known as a childhood infection. Before the advent of measles vaccination, children were especially vulnerable to this disease, and outbreaks were common within schools and communities, however it can still affect individuals of all ages, including adults.

Causes of measles

Measles is caused by the measles virus, a single-stranded RNA virus belonging to the Morbillivirus genus. This virus is unique in its ability to target and affect the respiratory system and lymphatic tissues in a specific and systematic manner. Since there is only one known type of measles virus, it makes it a lot more distinct from some other infectious diseases that have multiple strains.

Why do we still get measles outbreaks?

Measles outbreaks can also occur when individuals travel abroad, often to countries where measles is still prevalent, and then bring the virus back to their home country. If these traveler's are not immune to measles, especially if they’re unvaccinated, and they become infected during their trip, they can inadvertently introduce the virus into their communities upon their return.

How measles spreads

If you’re wondering if measles are highly contagious, then the answer is yes. Measles is infamous for its high degree of contagiousness. It spreads primarily through respiratory droplets when an infected person coughs, sneezes, or even talks. These tiny droplets containing the virus can linger in the air and survive on surfaces for up to two hours and infect others who come into contact with them. 

Once a person is exposed to the virus, it typically takes about 7 to 14 days for symptoms to appear, although this incubation period can vary. During this time, an infected individual can unknowingly spread the virus to others, contributing to the rapid transmission of the disease.

How long is measles contagious?

Contagious period start

Measles becomes contagious before the characteristic rash appears. Specifically, patients are considered contagious from approximately 4 days before the rash begins. During this incubation period, infected individuals may not display any symptoms, making it challenging to identify cases and contain the spread.

Contagious period after rash

Measles remains contagious for a significant period after the rash appears. The rash typically emerges around 10 to 14 days after exposure to the virus. Patients can continue to transmit the virus to others for about 4 days after the rash onset. This means that even when the rash becomes visible and the individual is aware of their illness, they can still infect others.

Measles symptoms

Measles symptoms can vary in severity. Here are the common symptoms of measles:

  • Fever - Measles often begins with a high fever, typically rising to 101°F (38.3°C) or higher. This fever is usually one of the first signs and can precede other symptoms by a few days.

  • Cough - A persistent cough that can be dry and hacking

  • Runny nose - Measles may cause a runny or stuffy nose, accompanied by sneezing and congestion. These symptoms can be mistaken for those of a common cold.

  • Sore throat - A sore throat is a common complaint among those with measles. It can contribute to difficulty swallowing and discomfort.

  • Red eyes - Measles can lead to redness and irritation in the eyes, often referred to as conjunctivitis. This can cause light sensitivity and a watery or purulent discharge from the eyes.

  • Koplik's Spots - One of the hallmark signs of measles is the appearance of small white spots with a bluish-white centre and a red halo on the inside of the cheeks. These spots, known as Koplik's spots, are an early indicator of the disease before the onset of rash but can be challenging to spot.

  • Rash - The characteristic measles rash typically appears a few days after the onset of other symptoms. It starts as flat red spots and gradually becomes raised. The rash usually begins on the face and spreads down the body, including the trunk, arms, and legs. It may also merge into larger blotches.

  • Fatigue - Measles can cause extreme fatigue and a general feeling of weakness, making it challenging for the infected person to carry out daily activities.

  • Loss of appetite - This, coupled with a sore throat and discomfort, can lead to reduced food intake.

Measles presents a set of symptoms that, at first glance, might seem similar to those of other childhood infections like chickenpox and roseola, however, it's important to recognise that there are distinctive differences between measles and chickenpox, and there are ways to know the differences between roseola and measles rash as well.

What to do if you suspect measles

Suspecting that you may have measles can be concerning, but taking swift and responsible action is crucial for your health and the well-being of those around you. Here's what you can do:

  • Isolate yourself
  • Contact a healthcare professional - Reach out to your healthcare provider as soon as possible. Inform them of your symptoms, recent travel history (if applicable), and any potential exposure to someone with measles. 
  • Avoid visiting public places
  • Practise good hygiene - Cover your mouth and nose with a tissue or your elbow when coughing or sneezing. Wash your hands frequently with soap and water for at least 20 seconds, or use hand sanitiser.
  • Wear a mask - If you must be around other people, wearing a well-fitted P2 mask is highly recommended, such as the likes of AMD P2 masks. P2 masks are designed to filter out airborne particles, including viruses like measles, providing an extra layer of protection.
  • Stay hydrated and rest
  • Follow medical advice - If your healthcare provider confirms a measles diagnosis, follow their recommended treatment plan. While there is no specific antiviral treatment for measles, supportive care can help alleviate symptoms and prevent complications.
  • Notify close contacts
  • Vaccination consideration - If you are not already vaccinated against measles, discuss vaccination with your healthcare provider after recovery. The measles vaccine is highly effective and can provide immunity if you have not been previously exposed to the virus.

Potential complications of measles

  • Pneumonia

  • Encephalitis - Inflammation in the brain that can lead to seizures, coma, and permanent brain damage.

  • Subacute Sclerosing Panencephalitis (SSPE) - Progressive, degenerative brain disorder that leads to mental deterioration, muscle spasms, and seizures, ultimately resulting in death.

  • Dehydration and malnutrition

  • Ear infections - Can lead to hearing loss if left untreated, particularly in children.

  • Blindness - In rare cases, measles can cause inflammation of the optic nerve, leading to vision impairment or blindness.

  • Pregnancy complications

  • Immune suppression

Let’s remember our role as part of a community to reduce the spread of measles

In the interconnected world we live in, travel has become an integral part of our lives. Measles outbreaks related to travel have been documented in various parts of the world. When individuals who are not immune to measles visit countries where the virus is still prevalent or where outbreaks are occurring, they can unknowingly bring the virus back to their home countries. This can spark localised outbreaks, particularly in communities with low vaccination rates.

Given the potential risks associated with international travel and measles outbreaks, it's essential for us to take proactive steps to protect ourselves, and it starts by checking your vaccination status, staying informed about measles activity, and taking necessary precautions.

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