Measles is a highly contagious viral infection that affects the respiratory system. It is caused by the measles virus, which can survive on surfaces for many hours, allowing for easy transmission. The virus settles in the mucus of the nose and throat, producing a range of symptoms that begin manifesting about seven to 12 days after exposure.
Fever is one of the earliest symptoms of measles, and most infected individuals run a temperature. The fever can reach as high as 104 degrees F and typically lasts for about a week. If the temperature runs high even after three to five days of taking medication to control it, the risk of further complications rises exponentially.
A dry hacking cough and coryza (runny nose) are classic symptoms of measles. They usually appear alongside a fever and may subside as the fever declines. A measles patient with frequent coughing spells and a persistently runny nose must be kept away from others, as the transmission of the virus takes place through contact with infected saliva and mucus.
Many measles patients develop conjunctivitis in the early stages of the infection. One or both eyes may be unmistakably red with a watery discharge. The affected eye is also likely to be difficult to open after sleeping, with the sensation that it has stuck shut. There is no treatment for conjunctivitis, which typically heals by itself. Eye drops can reduce discomfort.
A couple of days after other symptoms manifest, bluish-white spots on red, Koplik's spots, often appear inside the mouth. While these help with diagnosis, they are are temporary and generally not painful and may go completely unnoticed. If recognized in the early stages of infection, they can help with accurate, speedy diagnosis, which may prevent the spreading of the virus.
The distinctive measles rash is a flat, red skin discoloration that spreads over time to cover most of the body. It appears several days after the fever, typically beginning at the back of the ears. It soon affects the face and the rest of the body, and it tends to be itchy. The rash may change color from red to brown before healing fully. Complete disappearance of the rash may take up to three weeks.
As the measles rash worsens, individuals may become sensitive to light. This phenomenon is called photophobia. The patient can find relief by resting in a dimly lit room with no exposure to the sun or artificial light sources. Exposure, even to natural light, requires sunglasses to avoid irritation or inflammation in the eye. Even low light can cause extreme pain or discomfort when a patient has photophobia.
A telling sign of measles is general malaise. As an initial symptom in the prodromal phase (before symptoms fully appear), it can be easily confused with the common cold. Typically, general malaise is accompanied by fatigue, illness, discomfort, weakness, and muscle aches.
Red, watery eyes and swollen eyelids are a symptom of measles, especially in young children and the elderly. Different from conjunctivitis, which is infection and inflammation of the conjunctiva, issues with the cornea can lead to more severe symptoms. Watering eyes from keratitis can result in pain, redness, and blurred vision, and if not treated may lead to permanent vision loss.
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