What are the complications of Measles?

What are the complications of Measles?

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Measles- what are the complications?

Measles is one of the top causes of death in young children worldwide. Though the number of cases has fallen over the past few decades due to vaccination programs,  it is still a major killer- around 90,000 died from Measles in 2016.

At first, Measles can seem like a common cold- with a runny nose, fever, watery red eyes, cough and tiredness. The distinctive red Measles rash appears after 2 to 3 days. The rash starts on the head- typically behind the ears and along the hairline- then spreads to the rest of the body. While most people who get Measles recover with a week or so, some get complications. Out of every 1000 children who develop Measles, one or two will die from complications. Complications of Measles and death from Measles occur more often in children under the age of 5, or in people who have chronic illnesses.

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complications of measles

Ear infections

This is one of the most common complications of Measles. About 1 in 10 children who get Measles develop a middle ear infection (otitis media). This leads to earache, and a build-up of fluid in the middle ear. Antibiotics may be needed.

Vomiting and Diarrhoea

In some cases of Measles, vomiting and diarrhoea may occur, leading to dehydration. It’s important for the unwell person to drink plenty of fluids. Oral rehydration solution (such as Hydrolyte) may be helpful. If dehydration is suspected, you should seek urgent medical attention. Symptoms of dehydration can include reduced urine output, fatigue, drowsiness, weakness and a raised heart rate.

Respiratory complications

Measles can affect the airways and lungs in different ways. Aside from a runny nose, it can lead to inflammation around the voice-box (croup or laryngitis), bronchitis or pneumonia. Pneumonia occurs in about 1 in 20 cases of Measles- in fact, deaths from Measles are most often due to Pneumonia. If a child with Measles develops laboured breathing or if their cough is getting worse, they should see a doctor.

Complications in Pregnancy

If a woman is not immune to Measles and catches it during pregnancy, there is a higher risk of stillbirth, miscarriage, premature labour and low birth weight. Any woman exposed to Measles during pregnancy should have their immunity checked. If not immune, treatment with Measles HNIG (human normal immunoglobulin) may be recommended, to reduce the risk of developing illness.

Neurological complications

Inflammation of nerves related to the eye can lead to a squint or blindness. Encephalitis (inflammation of the brain) may also occur in about 1 in every 1000 cases of Measles and can be life-threatening. Subacute Sclerosing Panencephalitis (SSPE) is a rare but fatal complication, that occurs many years after Measles infection- it is untreatable and leads to brain damage and death.


Inflammation of the liver occurs in some cases, though does not tend to be life-threatening.


Can you die from Measles?

Yes, deaths still occur from Measles, due to various complications- pneumonia is the most common fatal complication. In Europe there have been 37 deaths so far in 2018.

As the complications of Measles are potentially so serious, immunisation with the MMR vaccine is recommended for all children, unless there are contraindications.

For more information about the complications of Measles speak to your doctor.

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About the Author:

Aifric Boylan
Dr Aifric Boylan is an experienced GP based in Melbourne. She completed medical school at Trinity College Dublin, Ireland, and undertook specialist training as a General Practitioner. She has 10 years experience working in General Practice and currently works as a full time family doctor in Melbourne, with a special interest in women’s health and paediatrics. She is a medical writer, covering common health issues in General Practice, as well as publications and opinion pieces in the medical press.

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