Your doctor can usually diagnose measles based on the disease's characteristic rash as well as a small, bluish-white spot on a bright red background — Koplik's spot — on the inside lining of the cheek. However, many doctors have never seen measles, and the rash can be confused with a number of other illnesses. If necessary, a blood test can confirm whether the rash is truly measles. The measles virus can also be confirmed with a test that generally uses a throat swab or urine sample.
There's no specific treatment for an established measles infection. However, some measures can be taken to protect vulnerable individuals who have been exposed to the virus.
- Post-exposure vaccination. Nonimmunized people, including infants, may be given the measles vaccination within 72 hours of exposure to the measles virus to provide protection against the disease. If measles still develops, the illness usually has milder symptoms and lasts for a shorter time.
- Immune serum globulin. Pregnant women, infants and people with weakened immune systems who are exposed to the virus may receive an injection of proteins (antibodies) called immune serum globulin. When given within six days of exposure to the virus, these antibodies can prevent measles or make symptoms less severe.
Fever reducers. You or your child may also take over-the-counter medications such as acetaminophen (Tylenol, others), ibuprofen (Advil, Children's Motrin, others) or naproxen sodium (Aleve) to help relieve the fever that accompanies measles.
Don't give aspirin to children or teenagers who have measles symptoms. Though aspirin is approved for use in children older than age 3, children and teenagers recovering from chickenpox or flu-like symptoms should never take aspirin. This is because aspirin has been linked to Reye's syndrome, a rare but potentially life-threatening condition, in such children.
- Antibiotics. If a bacterial infection, such as pneumonia or an ear infection, develops while you or your child has measles, your doctor may prescribe an antibiotic.
- Vitamin A. Children with low levels of vitamin A are more likely to have a more severe case of measles. Giving vitamin A may lessen the severity of the measles. It's generally given as a large dose of 200,000 international units (IU) for children older than a year.
Lifestyle and home remedies
If you or your child has measles, keep in touch with your doctor as you monitor the progress of the disease and watch for complications. Also try these comfort measures:
- Take it easy. Get rest and avoid busy activities.
- Sip something. Drink plenty of water, fruit juice and herbal tea to replace fluids lost by fever and sweating.
- Seek respiratory relief. Use a humidifier to relieve a cough and sore throat.
- Rest your eyes. If you or your child finds bright light bothersome, as do many people with measles, keep the lights low or wear sunglasses. Also avoid reading or watching television if light from a reading lamp or from the television is bothersome.
Preparing for your appointment
If you suspect that you or your child has measles, you need to see your child's doctor.
What you can do
- Write down any symptoms you or your child is experiencing, including any that may seem unrelated to the reason for which you scheduled the appointment.
- Write down key personal information, including any recent travel.
- Make a list of all medications, vitamins or supplements that you or your child is taking.
- Write down questions to ask your doctor.
For measles, some basic questions to ask your doctor include:
- What's the most likely cause of my or my child's symptoms?
- Are there other possible causes?
- What treatments are available, and which do you recommend?
- Is there anything I can do to make my child more comfortable?
- Are there any brochures or other printed material that I can take home with me? What websites do you recommend visiting?
What to expect from your doctor
The doctor may ask that you come in before or after office hours to reduce the risk of exposing others to the measles. In addition, if the doctor believes that you or your child has the measles, he or she must report those findings to the local health department.
Your doctor is likely to ask you a number of questions, such as:
- Have you or your child been vaccinated for the measles? If so, do you know when?
- Have you traveled out of the country recently?
- Does anyone else live in your household? If yes, have they been vaccinated for measles?
What you can do in the meantime
While you're waiting to see the doctor:
- Be sure you or your child stays well hydrated. Pediatric electrolyte solutions, such as Pedialyte, or sports drinks, such as Gatorade or Powerade, can help you stay hydrated and maintain your electrolyte balance.
Bring a fever down safely. If a fever is making you or your child uncomfortable, medications such as acetaminophen (Tylenol, others) or ibuprofen (Advil, Children's Motrin, others) can help bring the fever down.
Don't give aspirin to children or teenagers who have symptoms of measles. Though aspirin is approved for use in children older than age 3, children and teenagers recovering from chickenpox or flu-like symptoms should never take aspirin. This is because aspirin has been linked to Reye's syndrome, a rare but potentially life-threatening condition, in such children.