Measles and adults: What you need to know

In 2000, after a decades-long vaccination program, the CDC declared measles eliminated from the United States.

Jump to today, the United States has seen more measles diagnoses in the first three months of 2019 than in all of 2018.

Although unvaccinated children are at high risk for infection, adults can also be impacted by the virus. Dr. Jeffrey Steinbauer, professor of family and community medicine at Baylor College of Medicine, discusses measles in adults and what you should know about immunity.

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Who is immune to measles? Who is at risk of infection?

The CDC considers individuals who have received two doses of the measles-mumps-rubella (MMR) vaccine and are exposed to high risk settings (such as educational institutions, international locations, and healthcare organizations) immune.

If you received one dose of the MMR vaccine and you will not be in a high-risk setting for measles transmission, you are also considered immune. The CDC says other evidence of immunity includes:

  • Being born before 1957
  • Laboratory confirmation that you’ve had measles at some point in your life
  • Laboratory confirmation that you are immune to measles

(Note: Unvaccinated individuals and those with compromised immune systems, such as pregnant women and persons diagnosed with HIV or leukemia, are considered higher risk individuals).

What are the symptoms of measles?
Jeffrey Steinbauer, M.D., chief medical information officer and professor of Family and Community Medicine at Baylor College of Medicine
Dr. Jeffrey Steinbauer

In general, measles symptoms begin to appear within seven to 14 days after an individual is infected. Initial symptoms include:

  • Cough
  • High fever
  • Watery, red eyes
  • Runny nose
  • Tiny white spots inside of the mouth

Within three to five days after initial symptoms, a facial rash usually appears that spreads to the neck, arms, feet and legs.

Complications can include sinusitis, pneumonia and ear infection. The most severe complication is inflammation of the brain (encephalitis), which can be fatal. 

What else does the MMR vaccine protect against?

The vaccine prevents mumps, which is a glandular infection that’s particularly dangerous for young men who can become sterile after the infection attacks the testicles.

It also prevents a milder form of measles: rubella. While rubella is not usually considered dangerous, it can cause severe damage to the fetus of a pregnant mother who is not immune and becomes infected.  

Are there any other risks for pregnant women?

Because pregnant women might be at higher risk for severe measles complications, the CDC says intravenous immune globin (IGIV) should be administered to those without evidence of immunity who have been exposed to the virus.

Regardless of immunologic or vaccination status, the CDC recommends IGIV treatment for individuals with severely compromised immune systems who are exposed to measles because the vaccine may not provide full protection.

What steps should be taken to address individual concerns about immunity?

Be sure to check your immunization status. This is especially important before traveling internationally. You can also ask your doctor to do a blood test to check if you are immune.

Learn more about Baylor Family Medicine.

-By Nicole Blanton

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