Are you immune to measles?
Measles cases are rising in the UK - so how can you check if you are immune?
Are you unsure whether you've ever had measles or the MMR vaccine? With measles outbreaks rising, more and more people are asking: how do I know if I'm immune to measles?
- What is measles?
- Is there a treatment?
- How common is measles?
- MMR vaccinations
- Measles immunity and testing
What is measles?
The measles virus is a contagious infection. It can be serious at any age but usually affects people who are younger than five or older than 20. The rubeola virus (also known as German measles) spreads through the air when an infected person coughs or sneezes. Measles symptoms develop around ten days after being infected. Measles is a notifiable disease in the UK so if you are concerned that you have contracted it you must ensure you reach out to your local health care provider.
Symptoms of measles can include:
- Cold-like symptoms - a runny nose, sneezing, and a cough
- Sore, red, watery eyes that may be sensitive to light
- A high temperature (fever), which may reach around 40°C (104°F)
- Small greyish-white spots on the inside of the cheeks
- A red-brown blotchy rash that covers most of the body
A red or brown rash that starts on the face and behind the ears usually follows the cold-like symptoms. The rash will then spread to the rest of the body. Sometimes, it can become raised and form patches, but it doesn't usually itch.
Is there a treatment?
There are no specific (antiviral) treatments for measles, but there are several things you can do to help relieve the symptoms and reduce the risk of spreading the infection.
Avoid mixing with others as much as possible to reduce the risk of spreading measles. Measles usually improves in a week, but if you're concerned or your symptoms worsen, contact your GP.
Ways to reduce measles symptoms:
- Resting as much as possible
- Drinking plenty of fluids to avoid dehydration
- Taking paracetamol or ibuprofen to reduce fever, and for any aches and pains
What are the risks of getting measles?
Measles complications are usually rare. However, it can be more serious for babies, and people who are pregnant or who have weakened immune systems. If you catch measles when you're pregnant, there is increased risk of premature birth, low birth weight, or miscarriage. If you come into close contact with someone who has measles while you're pregnant then you should get medical advice.
Four rare complications caused by measles:
- Seizures (fits)
If you have measles and any of these problems, call 999 or go to A&E for urgent medical help.
This also includes:
- A high temperature that doesn't come down after taking paracetamol or ibuprofen
- Shortness of breath
How common is measles?
Last year, we saw a resurgence of measles outbreaks in England. Cases were mainly rising across parts of London and the West Midlands . It isn't just the UK that is seeing a rise in cases. Over 40,000 people in Europe were infected with measles in 2023. That’s almost a 45-fold increase from the previous year.
Why are measles cases rising?
Measles vaccinations began in 1988 with a single dose of MMR vaccine. The two-dose schedule was introduced in 1996. Since then, the number of people catching measles has fallen significantly. However, the pandemic changed this trajectory, and cases are rising again.
Vaccination rates for the MMR vaccine have fallen since the pandemic. A vaccination target of 95% for both doses of the vaccine is needed for herd immunity. Herd immunity is the best way to prevent this highly infectious disease from spreading.
Who can contract measles?
Measles is most common in children. However, anyone who hasn't been exposed to measles (from past infection or a vaccine) can get it. Measles is more severe in young people, older adults, and people with a weakened immune system.
How do we protect ourselves from measles?
The measles, mumps, and rubella (MMR) vaccine is the only way to protect yourself if you have not already been exposed to measles.
The vaccine is part of the Routine Childhood Immunisation Programme in the UK. Babies receive their first dose at the age of one. They then receive a second dose before starting school, typically at three years and four months.
The vaccine is a weakened version of the live virus (attenuated). One dose of the vaccine is around 93% effective against measles, whereas two doses are 97% effective .
Measles immunity and testing
Does the MMR vaccine give lifelong protection?
Previously having measles or having two doses of the vaccine give long-lasting protection against measles.
The vaccine triggers the immune system to produce antibodies against measles, mumps, and rubella. This also happens if you catch the virus. Once you have antibodies, the immune system will recognise measles and immediately produce the antibodies needed to fight it.
Can I still get the MMR vaccination if I didn't have it as a baby?
Yes, it's never too late for you to catch up with the MMR vaccination if you have never had it. The vaccination is the best protection we have against this viral infection.
How do I know if I am immune to measles?
If you didn't get the MMR vaccine as a child, you may not know if you're immune to it. Our Measles Mumps Rubella Immunity (MMR) Blood Test checks your immunity by detecting IgG antibodies from past infections or vaccinations. This is a venous blood test, meaning a nurse will take a blood sample from a vein in your arm.
- Public Health England. (2023). Measles Epidemiology 2023: Confirmed Cases of Measles in England by Month, Age, and Region. Retrieved from https://www.gov.uk/government/publications/measles-epidemiology-2023/confirmed-cases-of-measles-in-england-by-month-age-and-region-2023#:~:text=Update%20on%20England%20measles%20epidemiology&text=The%20latest%20information%20on%20the,aged%2015%20to%2034%20years.
- Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC). (n.d.). Measles, Mumps, Rubella (MMR) Vaccination. Retrieved from https://www.cdc.gov/vaccines/vpd/mmr/public/index.html#:~:text=One%20dose%20of%20MMR%20vaccine%20is%2093%25%20effective%20against%20measles,(weakened)%20live%20virus%20vaccine.