Measles and your baby

Babies and birth defects

Key Points

Measles is a virus that can cause serious health complications, including premature birth, pneumonia, swelling in the brain and even death.

Measles spreads easily through the air and on infected surfaces.

Make sure your family is up to date on all vaccinations. The MMR vaccination protects your family against measles, mumps and rubella.

Babies get two doses (shots) of the MMR vaccine. They get the first shot at 12 to 15 months old and the second shot when they’re 4 to 6 years old.

If your baby’s traveling outside the U.S. or measles is spreading where you live, he may need his first MMR shot at 6 to 11 months old.

What is measles?

Measles is a virus that lives in the nose and throat mucus of an infected person. It spreads easily to others when an infected person coughs, sneezes or talks. Recently there have been measles outbreaks around the United States. A measles outbreak is when measles spreads among three or more people who were in the same place around the same time.

The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (also called CDC) says that there have been more measles cases reported in the United States this year than in the last 25 years. Measles used to be a common childhood disease in this country before most children started getting an MMR vaccination. MMR stands for measles, mumps and rubella. The vaccination protects against all three diseases. Vaccinations contain a vaccine that helps your immune system build up protection (also called immunity) against diseases. This helps help prevent diseases from spreading to others.

The best way to protect your family and others from measles is to make sure everyone is up to date on MMR vaccinations. Getting everyone vaccinated helps protect others, including babies too young to get vaccinated and people with certain health conditions.

The MMR vaccination works so well that measles hasn’t been widespread in the United States in many years. Most people who have recently had measles never got vaccinated, or they got infected outside of this country. A person who gets infected in another country can spread measles to others in this country. There are about 7 million cases of measles around the world each year.  

Where are measles outbreaks happening in the United States?

Measles outbreaks are happening in these places:

  • Rockland County and New York City, New York. More than half of reported measles this year have been in New York.  
  • Michigan
  • Butte County, Los Angeles County and Sacramento County, California
  • Georgia
  • Maryland
  • Pennsylvania
  • Washington state

Most people who have measles haven’t been vaccinated and live in close-knit communities with low vaccination rates. Some people got infected with measles while visiting other countries and then spread it to others here.   

How does measles spread?

The measles virus can live up to 2 hours in the air where an infected person coughs or sneezes. If you breathe in this air you can get infected. Or if you touch a surface that’s infected and then touch your eyes, nose or mouth, you can get infected. Measles spreads so easily that up to 9 in 10 (90 percent) of people who aren’t immune and who get close to an infected person get infected.

What health problems can measles cause?

Measles can cause serious health problems for people of all ages. But it’s especially harmful for pregnant women, people with weakened immune systems, babies and young children. Children younger than 5 and adults older than 20 are more likely to have complications from measles than people of other ages. About 1 in 4 people (25 percent) who get measles need treatment in a hospital.

Measles can cause complications during and after pregnancy, like:

  • Preterm birth. This is birth that happens too early, before 37 weeks of pregnancy. Preterm babies can have serious health problems at birth and later in life.
  • Low birthweight (also called LBW). This is when a baby is born weighing less than 5 pounds, 8 ounces. Some low-birthweight babies are healthy, but others have serious health problems that need treatment. 
  • Maternal death (also called maternal mortality). This is when a woman dies during pregnancy or up to 42 days after the end of pregnancy from health problems related to pregnancy.

Measles can cause these health problems:

  • Breathing problems, like bronchitis, laryngitis or croup. Bronchitis is inflammation (pain, redness and swelling) of the bronchial tubes that carry air to the lungs. Bronchitis can cause cough, breathing problems and wheezing. Laryngitis is inflammation of the voice box (also called larynx). Laryngitis can cause you to lose your voice. Croup is inflammation of the vocal cords and windpipe. Croup can cause trouble breathing, a barking cough and a hoarse voice.
  • Diarrhea
  • Ear infections. About 1 in 10 children with measles (10 percent) has an ear infection. These infections can lead to permanent hearing loss.
  • Encephalitis. This is swelling of the brain. About 1 in 1,000 children with measles develops encephalitis. It can lead to convulsions that make your body shake quickly and without control. A child with encephalitis may become deaf or have intellectual or developmental disabilities. These are problems with how the brain works that can cause a person to have trouble or delays in physical development, learning, communicating, taking care of himself or getting along with others.
  • Pneumonia. This is a lung infection. It’s the most common cause of death from measles in young children. As many as 1 in 20 children with measles (5 percent) gets pneumonia. People with weakened immune systems may develop a kind of pneumonia that can cause death.
  • Subacute sclerosing panencephalitis (also called SSPE). Some people who have measles early in life go on to develop SSPE. It’s a rare, deadly disease that affects the central nervous system (the brain and spinal cord). SSPE usually develops 7 to 10 years after a person has measles, even though the person seems to have fully recovered from the infection. The chances of having SSPE may be higher if a person gets measles before 2 years of age.   

How does the measles, mumps and rubella (MMR) vaccination prevent the spread of disease?

The MMR vaccination protects against three diseases:

  1. Measles
  2. Mumps. Mumps can cause fever, headache and swollen glands in the face and neck. It sometimes causes more serious complications, like brain swelling.
  3. Rubella (also called German measles). Rubella can cause mild flu-like symptoms and a rash. If a pregnant woman has rubella, it can cause serious complications, like miscarriage, birth defects in the baby or death of the baby right after birth. Miscarriage is when a baby dies in the womb before 20 weeks of pregnancy. Birth defects are health conditions that are present at birth. They change the shape or function of one or more parts of the body. Birth defects can cause problems in overall health, how the body develops or how the body works.

The MMR vaccine is proven to be safe and effective. The CDC has done lots of research to make sure vaccination schedules are safe for children and adults. View our Vaccinations and pregnancy chart and our Vaccination schedule for babies and young children to learn more about vaccinations and the best time to get them.

How can you protect your family from measles?

The best way to protect your family from measles and prevent the spread of measles is to make sure everyone’s vaccinations are up to date. Here’s what you can do:

Ask your health care provider if your vaccinations are up to date before you try to get pregnant. If you don’t have a record of your vaccinations, your provider can check your immunity with a blood test.

If you haven’t been vaccinated, you need at least one dose (shot) of the MMR vaccine before pregnancy. You need two doses of the vaccine if:

  • You work or study in certain places, including health care settings (like a hospital or doctor’s office) or at a college or vocational school.
  • You travel outside the U.S.

 Even if you got MMR vaccinations as a child, you may need a booster shot (another dose).

It’s not safe to get the MMR vaccination during pregnancy. So ask your provider if you need one before you get pregnant. If you need an MMR vaccination, wait at least 4 weeks after you get the shot before you try to get pregnant. If you need two doses, wait at least 4 weeks after your second shot.

Make sure your baby’s vaccinations are up to date. Your baby gets two doses of the MMR vaccine. Babies usually get the MMR vaccination at:

  • 12 to 15 months old
  • 4 to 6 years old

If you plan to travel with your baby outside the United States, tell your baby’s provider. Your baby may need vaccination before you travel:

  • Babies 6 to 11 months old need one dose of the MMR vaccination before travelling outside the U.S.  
  • If your baby gets an MMR vaccination before his first birthday, he needs two more doses: one when he’s 12 to 15 months old and a second dose at least 28 days later.

If you live in an outbreak area where measles is spreading, talk to your health care providers or local health department about getting your family vaccinated.

  • Babies 6 through 11 months old may be able to get vaccinated.
  • Children 1 to 4 years old may need a second dose of the MMR vaccination.
  • Adults who’ve had one MMR dose may need a second dose given at least 28 days after the first dose. 

Keep sick family members away from other people. If someone in your family has measles, keep other family members who haven’t been vaccinated away from that person. Anyone who has measles should stay home and avoid contact with other people during the 4 days before and 4 days after the measles rash breaks out.

What are signs and symptoms of measles?
Signs of a condition are things someone else can see or know about you, like you have a rash or you’re coughing. Symptoms are things you feel yourself that others can’t see, like having a sore throat or feeling dizzy. Signs and symptoms of measles include:

  • Cough
  • High fever (may spike to more than 104 F)
  • Rash
  • Runny nose
  • Red, watery eyes (also called conjunctivitis or pink eye)
  • Sore throat
  • White spots (also called Koplik spots) inside the mouth

Measles can last for several weeks. Symptoms often start about 7 to 14 days after a person is infected. Tiny white spots may appear inside the mouth 2 or 3 days after the first symptoms. Three to five days after the first symptoms, a rash breaks out. It usually starts as flat red spots on the face at the hairline that spread to the neck, trunk of the body, arms, legs and feet. Small bumps may appear on top of the flat red spots. When the rash appears, fever make spike to more than 104F.

A person infected with measles can spread the virus to others from 4 days before they develop a rash to 4 days after the rash appears. Some people with weak immune systems, like people with leukemia or HIV, may not develop a rash.

How is measles treated?

There’s no cure or specific treatment for measles. To manage measles symptoms and help your child feel better, have her drink lots of fluids and get plenty of rest. If your child seems uncomfortable from fever, ask her health care provider if you can give her infant’s or children’s acetaminophen (Tylenol ®) or ibuprofen (Motrin® or Advil ®).

More info

Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC)

Last reviewed: May, 2019