When you have a runny nose, a cough, muscle aches and a high fever, you may brush them off as symptoms of the flu. However, if these symptoms come with a skin rash and tiny white spots inside your mouth, it might mean that you have measles, which is a contagious disease.
As a matter of fact, if a person has measles, 90 percent of the people close to him or her who are not immune (meaning they have already contracted the disease) will also become infected.1 But how does the measles virus spread so rapidly, and why is it so contagious?
The Measles Virus Is Highly Infectious
In the same category as influenza, measles is a respiratory virus that can be transmitted by coughing, sneezing and direct contact with infected nasal or throat secretions.2 People with measles are contagious from roughly four days before to four days after the rash appears.3
The measles virus can infect you when it gets into your lungs and replicates on the linings, called epithelia. Immune cells rescind incoming invaders and kill off infected cells in your epithelia.
However, it turns out, as the measles virus hits the lungs, it doesn’t stay put to breed; it boldly hijacks an immune cell and gets a ride into your immune system, making new viruses that infect other immune cells along the way.
The virus-laden cells then sneak from the windpipe to your lymph nodes, which are overflowing with more immune cells, and then this “hijacking spree” spreads throughout your body from the lymph nodes.
Most importantly, measles has an efficient way of transmitting itself, which makes it really easy to get out of your body and infect other people.
How Is Measles Spread?
When you get measles, the virus lives in your nose and throat mucus.4,5 “The measles virus uses the trachea as a trampoline,“ says Roberto Cattaneo, Ph.D., professor of biochemistry and molecular biology at the Mayo Clinic. A single sneeze or cough will scatter the virus through the air in high viral quantities, unlike other respiratory viruses that have to travel more just to get out of the host.
Once out, the measles virus can live in the air or on surfaces for up to two hours and still remain contagious — one of the main reasons it spreads very quickly.
Measles US Mortality Rates Are Vastly Overblown
Media reports about measles are vastly exaggerated today, as if American children are being admitted to the hospital in droves and regularly dying from complications. However, the World Health Organization (WHO) reported that the measles death rate in the U.S. is exceptionally low — on average, around 0.3 percent from 1987 to 2000,6 and with only 189 total measles cases across the entire U.S. in 2015.7
Nevertheless, measles can be a serious threat for less developed countries, where access to food and health care is severely lacking.8 The majority of measles deaths (more than 95 percent) occur in underdeveloped countries, including India, China, Pakistan, Mongolia and Sierra Leone, due to low capita income, poor health infrastructures and poor nutrition. In addition, overcrowding in residential areas in these countries increases the risk for infection, transmission and mortality rate.9