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4 Mar 2022

Six things every parent needs to know about measles

Measles cases are rising and children are at risk as vaccination rates for MMR fall to new low after focus on Covid

The UK eliminated measles in 2017 but now cases are increasing once more, putting at risk those who haven't been vaccinated - including those who can't be jabbed for medical reasons.

With experts saying that measles is more contagious than Covid, we take a look at why measles is more serious than some people might think, and the symptoms you need to look out for.

What rash is this? From chicken pox and measles through to meningococcal septicaemia, find out what your child's rash might be.

Why is measles increasing?

Since March 2020 and the start of the Covid pandemic, there's been a steep drop in the number of children being vaccinated against MMR and other childhood vaccinations at the correct time.

Coverage of the first dose in children aged two has dropped below 90% and coverage for the two doses in five-year-olds is 85.5%.

Although this may sound like a lot, it's below the 95% needed to achieve and sustain measles elimination, according to the World Health Organization (WHO).

This means that more than one in 10 children aged under five aren't fully protected from measles and are at risk of catching (and spreading) it, which is why the government is urging those who've missed out on their vaccines during the pandemic to have them now.

What is measles: signs and symptoms

Measles is an extremely infectious viral disease spread through water droplets coughed or sneezed by those with the infection.

It can affect anyone who hasn't been vaccinated, whatever their age.

Measles symptoms include:

  • a runny or blocked nose
  • red eyes and sensitivity to light
  • coughing
  • high temperature or fever
  • greyish-white spots in the mouth and throat
  • a red-brown blotchy rash, which appears a few days later, spreading from behind the ears and at the hairline to the rest of the body.

You are infectious for four days from when the first symptoms appear, so stay at home if you think you have it to reduce the risk of spreading it to vulnerable people (including babies and those with weakened immune systems).

Make sure to drink plenty of fluids and take paracetamol or ibuprofen to lower high temperatures.

Measure your child's temperature accurately with the best digital thermometers.

Measles is highly contagious

Measles is even more contagious than a virus that has changed all of our lives in the past two years - coronavirus.

Molecular virologist Dr Phil Gould of Coventry University says: 'Measles is definitely more contagious than Covid. Whereas the coronavirus has an R number of around two or three, measles has an R number of 15.'

This means that, on average, every person with measles will spread it to 15 others; a person with Covid will spread it to around three people.

You only need to be in contact with someone with measles for 15 minutes to get infected.

Measles can be dangerous

Parents may view measles as 'just another childhood illness' similar to chicken pox.

But Dr Gould say: 'While chicken pox may cause discomfort, measles can have serious consequences.'

These can include:

  • pneumonia
  • meningitis or encephalitis (inflammation of the brain)
  • blindness
  • seizures
  • miscarriage, stillbirth or premature birth in unvaccinated pregnant women.

The measles virus also causes immune system damage that can take up to three years to recover from.

In some rare cases it can cause devastation years later with sclerosing panencephalitis (SSPE), which leads to the progressive destruction of the central nervous system, dementia, loss of motor control, epilepsy and eventually death.

The truth about boosting your immune system

The measles vaccine is highly effective

Before a measles vaccine became available in 1968, it's estimated that measles was the direct or indirect cause of over half of all childhood deaths from infectious diseases.

Since then the vaccine has prevented 20 million measles cases and 4,500 deaths.

Vaccine facts

  • You don't need to be repeatedly vaccinated with the MMR. You only need to have two MMR vaccines to be properly covered. Unlike travel vaccines, such as for yellow fever or the flu vaccine, you don't need repeat the MMR.
  • Those with an egg allergy can safely have the MMR vaccine. The Vaccine Knowledge Project says that measles and mumps viruses are grown on a culture which contains chick embryo cells rather than on eggs, so there isn't enough egg protein in the vaccine to cause an allergic reaction.
  • Adults can be vaccinated. Unless there's a medical reason not to, for example if you are immunocompromised or if you are pregnant. You can even have a second dose if there's been a long gap since your first one.
  • The vaccine protects against infection. Although it's technically possible to get measles after you've had both MMR doses, it's incredibly unlikely.
  • The MMR vaccine doesn't cause autism. Studies have found no evidence of a link between the MMR vaccine and autism, and the original 1998 study and author that claimed it have been widely discredited by the scientific community.

We can't all rely on herd immunity

'Herd immunity' means that if enough people are vaccinated, it's more difficult for the disease to spread to those who can't have vaccines.

However, herd immunity against measles requires about 95% of a population to be vaccinated (rather than the current 85.5%) in order to protect the remaining 5%, which includes:

  • those without a fully working immune system, including without a working spleen
  • anyone undergoing chemotherapy treatment
  • people with HIV
  • newborn babies
  • older people.

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