Originally Published: March 23, 2001 - Last Updated / Reviewed On: March 14, 2014
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Dear Alice,

A friend of mine is living with someone who might have just got measles (results pending). If true, and my friend has also got it, how contagious is it? I think it is measles, rather than German measles, which I had as a child. Does past illness provide any defense? That is, can you get it twice? I presume having had German measles does not provide any protection against measles.

How is it transmitted? Like a cold? (Physical contact, common contact with hard surfaces, and maybe airborne.)

Dear Reader,

Although your concern about measles in understandable, first, take a deep breath. So far, no one has actually been diagnosed. The most likely way to get measles is from an infected person. If your friend and her/his roommate do not have measles, you're off the hook. In case they're infected with measles, here's the scoop:

  • Measles is caused by a virus (German Measles, a.k.a. rubella, is a different viral infection).
  • High fever, rash, runny nose, watery eyes, and coughing are some of the symptoms of measles.
  • People can get measles at any age, particularly when very young or over 20 years of age.

Measles is spread readily from person-to-person, and transmitted through airborne droplets that people who are infected spread when they sneeze, cough, or talk. Infected droplets that land on surfaces can remain active and contagious for several hours. Because of this, measles is highly contagious and occasionally it can be quite serious. Even if your friend's roommate does have measles, if you grew up or attended school in the United States, it's likely that you've been vaccinated against the illness. Being vaccinated doesn't guarantee that you'll have immunity; however, it's a great dose of prevention to have working in your favor.

Fortunately, with the advent of an effective vaccine, the number of cases in the United States has dropped dramatically. Most people who come down with measles will develop lifelong immunity. The same is true of German measles. However, being vaccinated (or infected) with one type of measles will not prevent you from getting the other type. If you're not sure if you have been vaccinated or had measles (or even which type you had), your health care practitioner can tell from a blood test if you need to be vaccinated.

For now, you may consider maintaining healthy habits like eating a balanced diet, resting enough, exercising moderately, and washing your hands; all of these actions help support your immune system. If your friend or her/his roommate is diagnosed with measles, you may want to keep watch for the symptoms listed above. Anytime you feel sick, especially when your symptoms include a high fever or rash, it's a good idea to visit a health care provider. Students at Columbia can make an appointment by contacting Medical Services (Morningside) or the Student Health Service (CUMC).

Here's hoping that the roommate in question just has a cold, and that you'll avoid any illness at all.

Take care,