16 Side Effects of Measles

Published: 07th May 2006
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Measles can lead to many complications. Some are not serious but others can be very dangerous and even fatal. Complications occur most commonly in pre school-age children, especially the under 2 year olds, and in adults over the age of 20. Up to 30% within these age groups suffer complications, compared to 3 – 5% of school age children.

The frequency of complications can only be estimated. Many different sources give different figures. Some are regional and others based on surveys carried out at specific times, rather than longer range trends. The figures quoted are therefore approximate, and in some cases no figures are given. This does not infer that the complications are extremely rare. In many cases the condition is not associated with measles at the time of diagnosis.

This article is intended as a guide only, and not intended to provide detail on the effects of the complications or their treatments. The website link at the bottom of the article will give more details if you require them.

Common Side-Effects

1. Diarrhoea
Common, occurring in about 1 in 7 cases of measles in children. This can be a serious side effect, especially if in a child who is refusing to eat or drink. As a parent you should be aware of the possibility of dehydration and make sure your doctor is aware of the situation. Do not use 'over-the-counter' diarrhoea remedies without consulting your doctor.

2. Eye Infections
Conjunctivitis occurs in about 10% of measles cases. It is easily treated but can cause complications if allowed to go unattended. There is no effective treatment for viral conjunctivitis, but there are treatments available to make the eye feel more comfortable. Your doctor will be able help with this.

3. Laryngitis
Measles causes acute laryngitis in about 10% of people who contract the disease. Measles is a respiratory disease and the throat, larynx and other areas of the respiratory system can become weakened and more susceptible to attack from other viruses and bacteria. The laryngitis can last for up to three weeks and is treated by rest and ensuring that the patient is kept away from irritating atmospheres such as cigarette smoke. Do not smoke in the presence of an ill child.

4. Earache.
About 7% of measles cases (1 in 15) will be affected with an inner ear infection (otitis media). This can cause loss of hearing, and if your child is affected she may pull at her ears or rub them with her hand. There are treatments available, and you should point out any symptoms of this to your doctor. Occasionally permanent damage to the ear can occur leading to chronic hearing difficulties.

Less Common

5. Pneumonia
About 1 in 15 of measles cases will be associated with pneumonia, either during the course of the disease, or just after it. Pneumonia is the cause of about 60% of measles deaths and urgent treatment is required. Although not serious in healthy adults, it can be fatal in young children, especially where their immune system has been damaged or compromised with, for example, cancer treatments and other conditions requiring the use of immuno-suppressive drugs. If your child is otherwise healthy, pneumonia should not be a serious problem, but your doctor should be aware of it. Most deaths are in developing countries, especially areas where AIDS is common.

6. Febrile Convulsions.
This type of fit looks very serious, and may cause you great alarm, but your child will generally make a full recovery. The child will lose consciousness, become stiff and may stop breathing for about 30 seconds. The limbs may twitch or spasm for a short while, the eyes will roll upwards, and then child may wet or soil himself. Recovery occurs rapidly and the child suffers no after effects. This is a complication in about 1 in 200 measles cases in young children under 3 years old, and is due to the temperature rise in measles from normal to around 40 Celsius (104 Fahrenheit).

7. Meningitis
Meningitis is a serious complication caused by infection of the meninges, the membrane covering the brain and spinal column. It occurs in about 1 in a 1000 cases, and can be fatal if not treated rapidly. Several pages are devoted to the disease on my website, and it is too serious a disease to cover in a few sentences. It is a complication of measles which doctors are well aware of, but is difficult to diagnose.

8. Encephilitis
This has similar symptoms to meningitis and is a swelling of the brain itself. It also occurs in about 1 in 1000 and can be fatal unless treated promptly. It is usually a viral disease, caused in this case by the measles virus which has moved up and attacked the brain. It is also a side-effect of meningitis.

9. Squint
Measles can also cause a squint in your child's eye, which previously seemed normal. A squint is due to a weakening of one of the muscles controlling the eye. It is thought that in measles cases the weakness was probably there but your child was able to compensate for it. However, after suffering from measles your child is no longer able to do this, and the squint becomes noticeable. There are no figures available for the frequency of this condition when associated with measles.

10. Bronchitis
As previously stated, measles is a disease of the respiratory system and bronchitis is a possible complication. It is treatable and any serious effects from bronchitis are very rare. It is an infection of the bronchial tubes leading to the lungs and your doctor will be able to treat it satisfactorily.

11. Croup
Croup is another respiratory infection which is a side-effect of measles. It is an infection of the larynx and trachea (voicebox and windpipe) and can be distressing to you and your child. It is rarely serious, but if your child starts to turn slightly blue, you should call your doctor. The main symptom is a 'barking cough' which starts off as a hoarseness in speech which rapidly gets worse.

It is not normally serious in developed countries, but can be in times of distaster.

12. Hepatitis
Impaired liver function can occur during a measles infection , and it may not be as rare as previously thought. However, it appears to last only a short time and symptoms do not persist. It is more common in adults than children, and parents need not worry too much about this as a possibility. Studies have shown that it can occur and disappear without being noticed.

Rarely, Measles can lead to:

        • Serious eye complications. Connected with measles depleting the body's store of Vitamin A.

        • Heart problems.

        • Serious problems with the nervous system.

  • Subacute sclerosing panencephalitis, a serious brain problem, a few years after the measles.

These last four are rare, but they do, and have, occurred as complications in measles cases.

As you can see, it is a long list. Measles can also kill, with a rough figure in developed countries of 1 in 1000. In undeveloped countries the death rate increases to 15% of cases or more, and over 30% where the immune system has problems, e.g. in AIDS patients and those taking immuno-suppressive drugs.

An aspect of measles which some parents fail to recognise is that unless they, themselves, have had measles already, or have been vaccinated, they could catch it from their children, and become more seriously ill than the child.

All parents should therefore ensure that they themselves have immunity. To plan this along with the starting of a family is not going too far because no parent would want to catch measles from elsewhere before their child is old enough to be vaccinated.

Complications are more likely in children with a poor immune system (such those with leukaemia or AIDS), and in those who are malnourished. This is one reason why measles is still a major problem in some poorer countries. Many malnourished children in the world die when they get measles, usually from a 'secondary' pneumonia.

There are still the occasional reports of children in the UK who die from complications of measles. These children have usually not been immunized.

Finally, there is another complication which is associated with all viral diseases, including measles, called Reye's Syndrome. This is a very serious disease which attacks all organs of the body including the brain and liver. It causes pressure on the brain and large accumulations of fat in the liver, both potentially fatal. Although its cause is unknown, it is known to be set off by aspirin, or any other salicylic acid derived medication taken during a viral infection.

It is important therefore never to take or give aspirin during a viral infection of any kind. Several measles symptoms could be treated with aspirin, such as raised temperature, headache, etc. Use paracetamol instead.

If you give your son or daughter aspirin when they have measles, or any other viral disease, you could be killing them.

This is one major problem I have with many websites dealing with viral diseases. They correctly identify headaches and sore throats as symptoms and correctly state in their 'treatment' paragraphs that viral diseases cannot be treated, just the symptoms. They then go on to suggest pain relief for the headaches, etc.

No word about the dangers of aspirin and related painkillers.

Please, therefore, be careful in your use of aspirin with a viral disease. Even adults who may take aspirin regularly as a heart treatment can fall foul of this dangerous condition if they also have a viral infection at the time.

Finally, lest anyone think that measles is not a potentially very serious disease, the following comes from the World Health Organization regarding measles in Tsunami affected areas:

"Complications: Up to 75% children may develop complications which include diarrhoea, otitis media, pneumonia, laryngo-tracheal bronchitis (croup) and encephalitis. Measles also depletes Vitamin A status that results in severe eye complications and blindness. Measles can lead to longer term brain damage and deafness.

Low vitamin A status is associated with an increased risk of complications.

Death: Case–fatality ratios for children under one in emergency settings: 3–30%. The three major causes of high case–fatality rates are pneumonia, diarrhoea and croup

Measles is a serious disease and can lead to death. I shudder when I read about 'measles parties' where parents deliberately try to have their children get measles from other affected children in the mistaken belief that it is safer than vaccination. I remember 'mumps parties' and 'German measles parties' in the 1950s and 1960s, but never 'measles parties'. It was always considered too serious a disease for that.

Times may have changed, but the disease has not.

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