Health awareness

Measles: symptoms and signs

Learn more about what the measles virus is and how measles spreads

June 10, 2022

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little girl with measles

Read the Spanish version – Sarampión: síntomas y signos

What is measles?

Measles is a highly contagious virus that lives in the mucus of the nose and throat of an infected person. Symptoms appear 7 to 14 days after contact with the virus.

Common measles symptoms include:

How measles spreads

Is measles airborne?

The measles virus can live for up to 2 hours in an airspace where an infected person coughed or sneezed.

What is the measles transmission rate?

If one person has measles, up to 90% of at-risk people close to that person will also become infected.

How long is measles contagious for?

Infected people can spread measles to others 4 days before through 4 days after the rash appears.

How long is the measles incubation period?

After being exposed to the measles virus, it can incubate for up to 21 days.

Does measles cause complications?

Measles can cause serious health complications, including ear infections, diarrhea, pneumonia, and encephalitis (an inflammation of the brain), impacting the daily lives of patients and their caretakers (e.g., can result in lost work time or missed school days).

Measles can be serious and lead to complications 

  • About 1 in 5 people in the U.S. who get measles are hospitalized.
  • As many as 1 out of every 20 children with measles get pneumonia, the most common cause of death from measles in young children.
  • Approximately 1 to 3 of every 1,000 children who become infected with measles will die from respiratory and neurologic complications.

Understanding measles outbreaks


Measles was declared eliminated in the U.S. in 2000.


2019 saw the greatest number of measles cases reported in the U.S. since 1992.

Before 1963, a decade before a vaccine became available, an estimated 3 to 4 million Americans contracted measles each year, leading to approximately 400 to 500 deaths and 48,000 hospitalizations annually.

Measles cases have been rising in the U.S.

There were 1,282 reported cases of measles in the U.S. in 2019.

US map of reported cases

The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) reported more measles cases in 2019 than in any single year since 1992.

In 2020, the number of measles cases in the U.S. dropped significantly, likely due in part to regulations put in place during the COVID-19 pandemic. However, these same regulations led to a decrease in routine child wellness visits, which leads experts to believe there could be an uptick in measles cases as restrictions ease.

Measles is still common in many parts of the world, and travelers with measles continue to bring the disease to the U.S. Measles can spread rapidly.