Measles Complications

Measles can be unpleasant, but will usually pass in about 7 to 10 days without causing any further problems.
Once you have had measles, your body builds up resistance (immunity) to the virus and it’s highly unlikely you’ll get it again.

But it can also cause some complications, and sometimes measles lead to serious and potentially life-threatening complications in some people.
Measles can be a serious in all age groups. However, children younger than 5 years of age and adults older than 30 years of age are more likely to suffer from measles complications.

Common complications

More common complications of measles include:

  • diarrhoea and vomiting, which can lead to dehydration
  • middle ear infection (otitis media), which can cause earache
  • eye infection (conjunctivitis)
  • fits caused by a fever (febrile seizures)

Severe Complications

  • Bronchitis, laryngitis or croup. Measles may lead to inflammation of your voice box (larynx) or inflammation of the inner walls that line the main air passageways of your lungs (bronchial tubes).
  • Pneumonia. Pneumonia is a common complication of measles. People with compromised immune systems can develop an especially dangerous variety of pneumonia that is sometimes fatal.
  • EncephalitisAbout 1 in 1,000 people with measles develops a complication called encephalitis. Encephalitis may occur right after measles, or it might not occur until months later. About one child out of every 1,000 who get measles will develop encephalitis (swelling of the brain) that can lead to convulsions and can leave the child deaf or with intellectual disability.
  • Pregnancy problemsIf you’re pregnant, you need to take special care to avoid measles because the disease can cause preterm labor, low birth weight and maternal death.

Uncommon complications

Less common complications of measles include:

  • liver infection (hepatitis)
  • misalignment of the eyes (squint) if the virus affects the nerves and muscles of the eye
  • infection of the membranes surrounding the brain and spinal cord (meningitis).

Rare complications

In rare cases, measles can lead to:

  • serious eye disorders, such as an infection of the optic nerve, the nerve that transmits information from the eye to the brain (this is known as optic neuritis and can lead to vision loss)
  • heart and nervous system problems
  • a fatal brain complication known as subacute sclerosing panencephalitis (SSPE), which can occur several years after measles (this is very rare, occurring in only 1 in every 25,000 cases)

Measles in pregnancy

If you’re not immune to measles and become infected while you’re pregnant, there’s a risk of:

  • miscarriage or stillbirth
  • your baby being born prematurely (before the 37th week of pregnancy)
  • your baby having a low birth weight

If you’re pregnant and think you have come into contact with someone with measles and you know you’re not immune, you should see your GP as soon as possible.

They can advise you about treatment to reduce your risk of developing the condition.

Who is most at risk?

Complications of measles are more likely to develop in certain groups of people.

These include:

  • babies younger than 1 year old
  • children with a poor diet
  • children with a weakened immune system, especially those with insufficient vitamin A, or whose immune systems have been weakened by HIV/AIDS or other diseases. (such as leukaemia)
  • teenagers and adults

Children who are older than 1 year and otherwise healthy have the lowest risk of developing complications

Spotting signs of serious illness

If you or your child has measles, you should keep an eye out for any signs of the serious complications that can sometimes develop.

Signs of a more serious problem include:

  • shortness of breath
  • a sharp chest pain that feels worse with breathing
  • coughing up blood
  • drowsiness
  • confusion
  • fits (convulsions)

Go to your nearest hospital or call emergency for an ambulance if you or your child develop any of these symptoms.