How ill does measles make you?

A recent study by the London School of Hygiene and Tropical Medicine found that measles has a much bigger impact on people’s lives than other illnesses such as flu, and also causes people to stay at home for an average of nearly 10 days – meaning that they may miss as much as a week and a half at work or at school. The researchers used questionnaire data from 203 people in England who were confirmed as having measles during the 2012 and 2013 epidemics. Over 90% of these people had not been vaccinated against measles.

The main findings of the study were:

  • Measles makes people feel more unwell than flu or chickenpox, and the illness lasts for an average of almost 14 days.
  • People with measles said that the illness made it difficult to carry out their usual daily activities, and caused high levels of pain and anxiety.
  • 63% of the people surveyed had to take time off work or school. The average number of days missed was 9.6.
  • 37% of people also said that someone had stayed at home to look after them. This meant an average of just over 7 days’ work missed for each person looking after someone with measles.
  • From June 2012 to May 2013 there were 2,366 confirmed cases of measles in England. Based on the study data, more than 1,500 of these people would have had to take time off work or school, and they would have needed 900 people to stay at home to look after them. This gives a total of over 23,000 days of ‘lost productivity’.

It is already well recognised that measles can lead to serious complications in some individuals. These can include secondary bacterial infection and encephalitis (inflammation of the brain). This study adds to this information by showing that measles infection also has a major impact on the health and the activities of daily life across the whole population of those infected. Measles infection can make people feel very unwell (as assessed by physical and emotional symptoms), as well as disrupting their education or working life. A nationwide epidemic of measles could potentially have a big impact on both the education system and the economy.

Measles is highly infectious. If an infected person coughs or sneezes, the virus can remain airborne for around two hours, meaning that you do not even have to come into direct contact with someone with measles to catch the disease. As a result, measles can spread very rapidly in communities where levels of vaccination are low, and quickly lead to a serious outbreak.

One of the authors on the study, Dr Mary Ramsay from Public Health England, stressed the importance of vaccination: “Measles is normally considered a mild childhood illness, but as this research demonstrates it still has a significant impact on people’s daily lives. Parents should ensure their children are fully protected against measles, mumps and rubella with two doses of the MMR vaccine to ensure protection against this potentially fatal disease.”

Read the abstract of the study

More information about measles and two short films about the effects of measles.

See also How dangerous is measles?