Measles In Babies - Causes, Symptoms And Treatment

Measles In Infants

Image: Shutterstock

Table of contents:

Measles leads to some unsettling rashes on the baby’s body. The viral infection is highly contagious and leads to fever and cold. Unfortunately, there is no medication for the condition. So, how do you tackle the problem, which could put your infant ill at ease? MomJunction will help you with an answer to that question and also talk about the causes, symptoms, and prevention.

What Causes Measles In Babies?

Measles is a viral infection that spreads through respiratory secretions expelled by an infected person when sneezing or coughing or through infected saliva. Measles, also called rubeola, is caused by the measles virus. The infection can be fatal, but the widespread availability of the measles vaccine helps prevent the disease. Nevertheless, the virus infects about 20 million individuals a year (1), with some infants at a higher risk than others.

Back to top

Infants at higher risk of measles:

The following groups of babies are at a greater risk of contracting the virus (2):

Infant groupDescription
Unvaccinated babiesBabies that do not have a vaccine-induced immunity
Immunosuppressed infantsThose who have AIDS, cancers such as leukemia, and diseases such as tuberculosis
Poor immunityMalnourished and underweight babies; babies with vitamin A deficiency
Infants living in crowded conditionsFor instance, those in day care centers
Infants between 6-12 monthsInfants in this age group have a higher susceptibility of contracting measles.

The mortality rate of measles is 100,000 per year for those below the age of five (3). Therefore, it is essential to be alert about its symptoms.

What Are The Symptoms Of Measles In Babies?

The measles virus has an incubation period of eight to 12 days after which the symptoms surface (4). Following are the symptoms in their order of appearance:

  • Cold, sore throat, and runny nose are the first symptoms to emerge at the end of the incubation period. As these symptoms are similar to those of common cold, there is no way the parents can tell it is measles. There is a constant runny nose along with a severe cough.
  • Conjunctivitis, the infection of the outermost layer of the eye (conjunctiva), and moderate fever are some other symptoms. The measles virus infects the layer causing redness and inflammation of the eyes, and moderate fever.
  • After two to three days of the first symptoms, the baby develops measles rashes, which first appear as dull blisters, but soon turn into large blotches of tiny reddish-brown rashes. The rashes appear on the forehead and gradually spread to the arms, torso, legs, and feet, and in some cases even inside the mouth. These tiny red bumps are called Koplik’s spots.
  • The fever surges after the appearance of rashes and reaches a scorching 104°F to 105.8°F (40°C to 41°C). It is at this stage that the disease reaches its peak.

The fact that there are several other conditions with similar symptoms makes it difficult to recognize measles.

Conditions similar to measles:

  • Roseola is an infantile disease caused by the herpes virus (5). It leads to rashes all over the body, but the rashes have a lesser intensity than those caused by measles. The rashes do not last long, and the condition usually subsides in three days.
  • Rubella is also called, German measles. The disease is caused by rubella virus, but the symptoms are strikingly similar to those of measles. However, in rubella the person experiences joint pains as well. Unlike measles, rubella is mostly mild, with about 25-50% infected infants never displaying any symptoms and recovering silently (6).

The above conditions have a different prognosis than measles. The measles rash and high fever persist for five to eight days, eventually decreasing in intensity. The disease usually lasts for 14 days, and by the second week, the baby will show signs of recovery. Nevertheless, he should be rushed to the hospital even at the slightest signs of the disease.

Back to top

How Is Measles In Infants Diagnosed?

Doctors diagnose the condition by visual inspection of the characteristic measles rash. A blood test is conducted to assess the presence of antibodies that target the measles virus. This helps differentiate it from other conditions and makes the treatment specific and accurate..

Back to top

How Is Measles Treated?

There is no particular drug for measles, and it cannot be treated with antibiotics since they are helpful only against bacteria. However, the following measures relieve the symptoms and bolster the immune system to clear the virus naturally.

  • Immunization: Babies older than 12 months can be administered the measles, mumps, and rubella (MMR) vaccine if measles is diagnosed within 72 hours. If the blood tests reveal the infection was contracted before 72 hours, then an injection of immunoglobulin (IG) antibodies may be given (7). Since MMR vaccine is not recommended for infants under 12 months, an IG injection is the only alternative. IG injection is also suitable for infants below six months.
  • Analgesic medication: Medicines such as paracetamol (also known as acetaminophen) are prescribed to relieve cold and fever. These medicines are available over-the-counter, but should only be given to the baby after consulting a docton. Analgesics such as aspirin are never given to babies since they can lead to health complications (8).
  • Vitamin supplements: Supplements help strengthen the immune response and also address vitamin deficiencies in the body. The inadequacy of vitamin A is linked to an increased risk of measles. Vitamin supplements are ideal only for infants above six months as babies below six receive adequate vitamins from breastmilk alone.
  • Antibiotics: A baby’s compromised immunity leaves the body unguarded against a host of bacteria. The doctor may prescribe a precautionary antibiotic course in case of severe measles.

Like in the case of any viral infection, the patient has to be given sufficient home care to ensure the immune system works properly and the baby gets maximum rest.

Back to top

Home care for a baby with measles:

Caring for a little one with measles is a vital part of treatment. Here is what parents can do to ensure the baby’s body fights the virus better:

  • Give plenty of fluids: If the baby is younger than six months, then breastfeed the infant more frequently. Babies older than six months can be given sips of water and fresh homemade fruit purees since fruits are rich in vitamins (9). Solid foods can be difficult and painful to chew due to Koplik’s spots in the mouth. Therefore, a liquid diet of purees and blended baby cereals in milk will help the little one get the necessary nourishment.
  • Dim the room lighting: The infant should sleep in a dimly lit room. Infants with measles can find bright light uncomfortable and irritating.
  • Lots of rest: Rest always helps in viral infections as it gives the immune system adequate time to prepare itself for the attack on the virus. Pause the baby’s playtime till he is better. If the toddler goes to a preschool, then take a month off. The little one should be completely healthy before he resumes any physical activities.

The treatment and supportive care for measles are necessary since they inhibit complications that can aggravate the baby’s illness.

Complications Of Measles In Babies

The measles virus keeps the immune system busy leaving the body exposed to other harmful germs. An untreated measles infection may indirectly cause the following diseases in the baby:

  • Pneumonia is the most common complication of measles in infants. The measles virus increases the risk of contracting pneumonia, especially in infants with compromised immunity.
  • Bronchitis is a bacterial infection of the bronchiole tubes in the lungs and makes breathing difficult and painful for the patient.
  • Bacteria can invade the middle ear and lead to ear infections such as otitis media.
  • Upper respiratory infections, including the larynx (laryngitis) and trachea (croup), are common complications.
  • Encephalitis is the most severe of all complications, but the least common – only one in 1,000 measles patients develops this condition. Encephalitis is the swelling of the brain, which causes convulsions, seizures, and coma in severe cases.

The World Health Organisation (WHO) states that most measles-related deaths are only caused by its complications (10). These complications can be easily prevented by prompt treatment. However, prevention is the best way to avoid the condition in the first place.

Back to top

Can You Prevent Measles Through Vaccination?

Yes, measles is preventable through the administration of the MMR vaccine, which is a single prevention measure for measles, mumps, and rubella. In most countries, MMR vaccines are part of the usual immunization checklist for an infant. According to the American Academy of Pediatrics (AAP), the vaccine has led to a 99% drop in measles cases in the US since 1963.

Nevertheless, there are several misconceptions about the vaccine due to its benign side effects. Some unsubstantiated research has linked the vaccine to autism, but the claim has been vehemently debunkedd In reality, the vaccine is entirely harmless, compelling, and declared safe by the AAP, UNICEF, and even the US government (11) (12). However, a parent should keep some points in mind before going for an MMR vaccination.

Back to top

When Should My Baby Get The Measles Vaccine?

The MMR vaccine against measles is only administered to an infant after 12 months of age. The first dose is given at the age of 12-15 months and the second dose (booster shot) once the little one is four to six years old. It is important to get both the doses to ensure complete immunity against the measles virus.

Some more points to know about MMR vaccination:

  • In some cases, babies between six and 11 months can be given the vaccine, especially when the little one is traveling to a measles-prevalent country. The baby will still have to undergo the two usual vaccine shots at 12-15 months and between four and six years.
  • Parents may also opt for IG injections after doctor’s consultation. IG injections are safe for babies younger than six months but offer only short-term immunity.
  • Irrespective of their age, the vaccinated babies might have mild side effects such as low-grade fever and cold. They may also develop a moderate measles-like rash. Side effects appear six to12 days after vaccination. These effects are not dangerous and should not be a reason to evade vaccination. Also, they are seen only in about 15% of the vaccinated babies.
  • Several hospitals and clinics offer the MMRV vaccine, which immunizes the baby against the varicella virus that causes chicken pox. MMRV vaccine has a different immunization schedule, and the little one will undergo multiple shots till he is 12 years of age. MMRV vaccine is equally safe and approved by AAP and the US Department of Health & Human Services (13).

These vaccines, however, do have some limitations and it is best to check with the doctor.

Back to top

Limitations to the MMR vaccine:

An MMR vaccine may not be administered to infants in the following categories, even if the baby is older than 12 months.

  • Babies allergic to neomycin and gelatin tend to develop a hyper-allergic reaction against the MMR vaccine. Neomycin is an antibiotic compound while gelatin is a type of collagen. This makes it imperative for parents to share their babies’ allergy history with the doctor before vaccination.
  • The MMR vaccine could be fatal to babies who have a compromised immunity or immunosuppressed infants such as those with AIDS or certain types of cancer.
  • Infants who show intense side effects to the first dose are exempted from the second dose. Such babies will have limited immunity against measles.
  • If the baby is suffering from an illness, disease, or is unwell in general, then the doctor will postpone the vaccination till the baby is completely alright. Diseases make the immune system extra sensitive, which may lead to side effects during immunization.

In the above cases, doctors delay vaccinations or suggest safer alternatives such as immunoglobulin injections that provide short-term immunity.

Can A Baby Get Measles Even After Vaccination?

Experts believe that it is highly unlikely for a baby to get measles after vaccination (14). The first dose of vaccine provides 90% immunity while two doses give 99% immunity against measles. However, no vaccine gives 100% protection.

Nevertheless, only 3% of immunized individuals get the disease, and the symptoms are far less intense than those that get measles without vaccination (15).

Infants who get measles even after vaccination will tolerate the infection better and are less likely to spread the virus to healthy individuals. The benefits of vaccination, thus, outweigh the risk of skipping the immunization.

In addition to vaccination, preventive care is key to protect your infant from measles.

Back to top

How Can Parents Help Prevent Measles In Babies?

Some easy and simple home prevention measures can help keep measles at bay:

  • Breastmilk protects: Studies have indicated that if a mother suffered from measles in her life, then she automatically passes her natural immunity to her baby through breastmilk (16). It is called passive immunity since the baby’s body gets readymade antibodies. This immunity is so effective that the baby has some level of protection against measles till 12 months (17). Mothers who never acquired measles, should still feed the baby since breastmilk is rich in antibodies and provides numerous scientifically-proven immunity benefits (18).
  • Avoid high-risk situations: Measles spreads easily in overcrowded environments, and is common during winter and spring seasons. Being extra cautious around this time and staying away from overcrowded places will help shield the baby.
  • Maintain hygiene: The measles virus can remain on a surface for two hours, ready to infect anyone who comes into contact with it. Cleanliness and hygiene are essential to prevent the infection. Always wash the baby’s hands after you come from outdoors, and clean his personal items and keep them in a hygienic state.

Back to top

Immunization of family members also considerably reduces the baby’s risk of contracting the virus.

A baby who has just recovered from measles will have a natural immunity against the disease, usually for the rest of the life (19). However, it is not a reason to stay away from vaccination. Simple preventive measures and vaccination are the hallmark steps to protect the little one from the clutches of measles.

Know of any more tips that can help keep measles at bay? Leave them in the comments section below.

Was this information helpful?

Comments are moderated by MomJunction editorial team to remove any personal, abusive, promotional, provocative or irrelevant observations. We may also remove the hyperlinks within comments.