Right now, it feels like measles are everywhere. The virus has been making a comeback, with no less than 704 measles cases reported to the Center for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) since the start of 2019 — including, most recently, at an Avengers: Endgame screening and on a cruise ship. When it comes to contracting the disease, children — with their fragile immune systems — are often top of mind, but with a virus as contagious and increasingly widespread, just how worried should adults really be about catching measles themselves?
Very, if they haven't been vaccinated. “Adults can definitely get measles," said Dr. Melissa Stockwell of Columbia University Medical Center to Newsweek in April. "Their cases are similar to children and being an adult is actually a risk factor for severe illness and complications.”
So far, most of the measles outbreak has hit states with large numbers of people clustered together, like California and New York, and according to the CDC, the majority of these cases have happened when an an unvaccinated person visited countries with an outbreak, like France and the Philippines, and then returned to the U.S. If you're concerned that you might be at risk of becoming infected, though, don't panic. Here's everything you need to know about measles in adults.
Who's at risk
If you received the vaccinations as a kid, you should be almost completely protected against measles. The measles vaccine (MMR) is over 90% effective against the virus, and up to 97% effective if you got the required two as a child. But unvaccinated adults are at serious risk. "Measles is so contagious,” warns the CDC, “that if one person has it, up to 90% of the people close to that person who are not immune will also become infected.”
Women who contract measles during pregnancy also face danger, as the chances of a miscarriage, stillbirth, or early labor increases when the virus gets involved. Yet the CDC does not recommend getting the measles vaccine during pregnancy because of the mother's vulnerable immune system during this time. If you're planning out your pregnancy, you should double-check your vaccination records and, if you haven't been vaccinated, make sure to receive MMR at least one month before you expect to get pregnant.
Older adults who were vaccinated between 1963 and 1967 should check their immunization status, too. During this time period, the U.S. was using two kinds of measles vaccines — one with an inactivated (killed) virus, and another with a weakened, live virus. We now know that the weakened, live virus is far more effective against measles, so if you think you got the inactivated version, or if you're not sure, the CDC recommends getting a measles booster shot, just in case. If you were born before 1957, though, the CDC presumes you already were infected with the disease at some point due to how widespread it was at the time, and says you don't need a booster shot now.
Lastly, if you're a nurse, doctor, or any sort of healthcare professional, you're also at greater risk of illness due to exposure to measles carriers. The American Nurses Association has stated that healthcare professionals should make sure they're up-to-date on all vaccinations for the safety of themselves and their patients, and the CDC recommends a full, two doses of the vaccine for those in the industry who didn't receive it as children.
What symptoms to look out for
It can be difficult to tell whether or not you have measles at first, as the signs don't show until 7 to 14 days after the infection. After that quiet period, flu-like symptoms — a high fever, cough, runny nose, and red and watery eyes — will begin to appear if you've contracted the disease. The absolute signs of measles, a red rash all over the body and white spots in the mouth, will appear a few days after the first symptoms.
From there, things can get complicated. The CDC warns that anyone over the age of 20 can suffer from complications, and the National Health Service lists diarrhea, vomiting, ear infections, pneumonia, and bronchitis as common occurrences. Less frequent, but still dangerous, complications can include liver infections and brain swelling.
Unfortunately, the CDC warns that there's no antiviral medicine to take once you've caught the virus. If you have it, you can only treat your symptoms and keep yourself isolated to prevent spreading it. If your case feels severe, don't hesitate to go to a hospital to wait things out — measles and its complications are not to be taken lightly, despite what anti-vaxxers might lead you to believe.
How to prevent it
Measles likes to stay in the air up to two hours after an infected person has coughed or sneezed, which is how it spreads so quickly, and why many officials put infected individuals into quarantine to prevent the disease from being passed on. If you’re in a big, people-packed city that's dealing with an outbreak, you can take some extra steps to lessen your chances of becoming sick. The CDC suggests washing your hands often, avoiding close contact with sick individuals, and covering your coughs and sneezes with tissues or sleeves.
Have a big trip coming up? Since many people spreading the virus caught it overseas, the CDC is asking at-risk international travelers to check their immunization records to make sure they're vaccinated. If you don't have any records or you aren't sure if you received a shot, consider getting one before leaving on your next foreign trip.
And if you're worried about the shot, don't be; according to the CDC, the vaccine works by injecting a weakened version of the virus into you, giving your immune system a weak enemy to fight and defeat. Once that goal is achieved, your body will “remember” the virus and protect you from it ever attacking again. You might feel a little sick after receiving MMR, and the CDC notes there can rarely be more severe reactions such as seizures, but the vaccine is still considered the best way to fight measles, hands down.
That said, the CDC doesn't recommend the shot for people who are pregnant, have weakened immune systems due to diseases such as HIV or leukemia, or have life-threatening allergies to ingredients in the vaccine. If you think you can safely get the shot aren't sure whether you received MMR as a kid, you can check for immunity by finding your medical records that will show you got the shots. If you don't have any on hand, you can head to a doctor for a blood test that'll confirm whether or not you are immune.
If you're still freaked out about getting measles, take the time to speak with your doctor and get all the info you need. Otherwise, just make sure to take every precaution possible to protect yourself and others against the disease.