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Here’s How You Can Differentiate Measles and Cold

Here’s How You Can Differentiate Measles and the Common Cold

, by Aussie Pharma Direct, 7 min reading time

When it comes to viral infections, few illnesses have caused as much concern and confusion as measles and the common cold. Both can manifest with symptoms like fever, cough, and runny nose, which is why they are often mistaken for one another, just like how one would when wanting to differentiate between the flu and COVID-19

While both these conditions share some similar symptoms, they also exhibit distinct characteristics that set them apart. We’re going to explore the key differences between measles and the common cold, shedding light on their unique characteristics, modes of transmission, and the symptoms to look out for in adults and children.

Overview of measles and the common cold


Measles, also known as rubeola, is an acute viral respiratory illness caused by the measles virus. It primarily affects the respiratory system and can lead to a range of serious complications, including pneumonia, encephalitis (inflammation of the brain), and even death in severe cases.

Measles is transmitted through respiratory droplets when an infected person coughs or sneezes. The virus can remain infectious in the air and on surfaces for several hours, making it highly contagious.


The common cold, on the other hand, is a much less severe respiratory illness caused by a variety of viruses, most commonly rhinoviruses. While it can be bothersome and uncomfortable, it rarely leads to serious complications or hospitalisation.

How do you catch a cold? Well, the ways cold virus is transmitted is similar to that of measles. You can catch a cold via direct contact or by touching contaminated surfaces or objects that have cold virus particles on them after the infected person sneezes or coughs.

Common symptoms and signs that differentiates the two illnesses

Measles symptoms typically include:

  • High fever - Measles often begins with a high fever, which can spike up to 104°F (40°C).
  • Rash - A characteristic red rash appears, starting on the face and then spreading across the body.
  • Cough and runny Nose - Measles patients may develop a cough and a runny or stuffy nose.
  • Conjunctivitis - Red, watery eyes, commonly known as "pink eye," can also occur.
  • Koplik's spots - Tiny white spots with bluish-white centers may appear inside the mouth.
  • General malaise - Fatigue, muscle aches, and a general feeling of being unwell are common.

Common cold symptoms typically include:

  • Runny or stuffy nose - This is one of the hallmark symptoms of the common cold.
  • Sore throat - A scratchy or sore throat is common.
  • Sneezing and coughing - Frequent sneezing and coughing may occur.
  • Mild fatigue - Cold sufferers may feel tired but usually not severely.

Measles and the common cold may seem like an unlikely pair to be confused with each other, but they do share some common symptoms, which can occasionally lead to misdiagnosis. Here are the symptoms that both illnesses can have in common:

  • Fever - Both measles and the common cold can cause fever. A rise in body temperature is your body's natural response to infection as it tries to combat the invading virus.
  • Cough - Coughing is a typical symptom of both illnesses. It can be dry or produce mucus in the case of a cold, while measles-associated cough may be more persistent and harsh.
  • Congestion - Nasal congestion, often accompanied by a runny or stuffy nose, is another shared symptom. This can lead to discomfort and difficulty breathing through the nose for both measles and cold sufferers.

Incubation periods

The incubation period is the time that elapses between exposure to the virus and the onset of symptoms. 


Incubation period: Measles has a relatively long incubation period compared to the common cold. It typically ranges from 7 to 14 days after exposure to the measles virus before the rash starts to appear. During this period, the virus quietly replicates in the body, and individuals are not yet symptomatic or contagious.

This extended incubation period for measles can be particularly challenging from a public health perspective. Infected individuals can unknowingly spread the virus to others for days before the characteristic measles rash and other symptoms develop. This emphasises the importance of identifying and isolating cases promptly to prevent further transmission.

Common cold

Incubation period: In contrast, the incubation period for the common cold is generally much shorter. Symptoms usually appear within 1 to 3 days after exposure to the cold virus. This rapid onset is one reason why colds are so prevalent, as individuals can become contagious shortly after being infected.

The shorter incubation period of the common cold means that people who have contracted the virus will typically start experiencing symptoms relatively quickly. This can make it somewhat easier to identify when someone may have been exposed to a cold virus, although the shared symptoms with other respiratory infections such as the flu, including COVID-19, can still complicate the process.

Complications and severity

Measles can lead to severe and potentially life-threatening complications:

  • Pneumonia
  • Encephalitis (inflammation of the brain)
  • Ear infections
  • Severe diarrhoea
  • Death, particularly in vulnerable populations such as infants, pregnant women, and people with compromised immune systems. 

The common cold, in contrast, is typically a mild and self-limiting illness. Most people recover from a cold within a week or two with rest and basic self-care measures, however, it’s not without consequences such as:

  • Secondary infections (including bacterial infections such as sinusitis or ear infections)
  • Asthma exacerbation

Treatment and management

Know what you should do when you have measles and cold. Here are some key aspects of treatment and management for both cold and measles:


  • Rest
  • Hydration to assist in clearing mucus from the respiratory tract
  • Symptom relief with over-the-counter (OTC) medications such as decongestants, antihistamines, and pain relievers (like acetaminophen or ibuprofen).
  • Warm salt gargles to soothe a sore throat
  • Using a humidifier in your room to add moisture to the air
  • Cough drops or lozenges
  • Avoiding irritants like smoking and secondhand smoke


  • Supportive care to alleviate symptoms and complications. This may include fever-reducing medications, pain relief, and hydration.
  • Isolation. Hospitalisation may be necessary in some cases, especially for individuals at higher risk of complications.
  • Vitamin A supplementation
  • Monitoring for complications. If complications develop, more intensive medical treatment may be required, including hospitalisation.



While it's challenging to completely avoid exposure to cold viruses, there are steps you can take to boost your immune system and reduce the frequency of getting colds, and it starts from your lifestyle. A healthy, well-balanced diet provides your body with essential nutrients that support immune function, and when necessary, you can even consume supplements for that much needed dose of nutrients. Even regular exercises can collectively enhance your immune system's ability to defend against infections.


Vaccination is the most effective way to prevent measles. Post-exposure prophylaxis with the measles vaccine or immune globulin may also be administered to individuals who have been in close contact with someone with measles.

Check out the information on getting vaccinated in Australia here.


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