Spotlight on childhood illnesses


There is a major outbreak of mumps in Texas. Measles, Mumps, Chickenpox, Pertussis, and Rubella were once common childhood illnesses, although adults can get them as well. According to the National Institutes of Health, vaccines have just about wiped the diseases out, but not completely, and there are sometimes localized epidemics.

These five illnesses all have a few things in common.

  • First, the diseases are contagious. You can sometimes get infected just from being in the same room.
  • Second, people can be contagious before they show signs of the disease. So you can't always avoid the diseases by avoiding people with symptoms.
  • Third, the diseases are typically much more dangerous to adults than to children. Fourth, vaccines are available for these diseases.

Talk to your doctor about vaccines, as well as treatment and prevention. To find a family medicine practice near you, visit

Read below to learn more about each disease.


Measles is caused by a virus. The symptoms include fever, runny nose, cough, sore and reddened eyes, followed by the characteristic red-brown rash. The rash usually starts on the face and spreads down the body, lasting three or more days.

The incubation period - that's the time between exposure to someone with the disease and the onset of the symptoms - is about 10 days. The red rash shows up three days to a week after the first symptoms. People are contagious from just before symptoms appear until 4 to 5 days after the rash appears.

The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) says there is no real treatment except bed rest. Most children are very sick, running a high fever and feeling uncomfortable, but most recover with no ill effects, according to the CDC. Measles can cause pneumonia, inflammation of the brain, or ear infections. The disease hits very young children and adults harder.

Measles is preventable by vaccination. The CDC recommends that children receive the MMR (measles-mumps-rubella) vaccine beginning at age 12 to 15 months and again at 4 to 6. They should be reassessed at 11 to 12 years of age and if they haven't had all the proper immunizations, they should get them. Children older than that should get catch-up immunizations, if they need them. The CDC suggests adults who have never had measles and haven't been vaccinated get two doses of MMR after consulting with their doctor. Adults born before 1957 are assumed to be immune since they probably had the disease as a child and you only get measles once.


Mumps is also caused by a virus. The main symptom is a swelling of the salivary glands. This swelling can show up in:

  • the jaw
  • the cheeks
  • the neck

The swelling is also accompanied by fever and headache.

Adults who get the disease are more likely to have serious complications. Complications can include meningitis, which is an infection of the covering of the brain and spinal cord. In addition, mumps can result in a miscarriage in the first trimester of pregnancy, according to the CDC. Males sometimes experience swelling of the testes as well.

Someone with mumps is contagious from about a week before symptoms appear until about nine days after they start. Once again, the CDC recommends the MMR vaccine to prevent mumps. Adults born before 1957 are again assumed to be immune.


Rubella is also called German measles. It usually isn't serious but it is very dangerous for unborn babies. The symptoms include:

  • a rash
  • a low grade fever
  • body aches
  • headaches

Not everyone gets the rash. The incubation time for rubella is 2 to 3 weeks and someone is contagious from a week before to a week after symptoms appear.

If a pregnant woman is exposed to rubella, it can cause serious damage to her unborn baby, including birth defects and even miscarriages.

The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention say birth defects can include:

  • deafness
  • cataracts
  • heart defects
  • mental retardation
  • liver and spleen damage

The American Academy of Family Physicians warns women who are of childbearing age to make sure they either had rubella or have been vaccinated.

Again, CDC says rubella is preventable with a vaccine, the MMR vaccine.

Pertussis (Whooping Cough)

Pertussis is also known as whooping cough. A bacterium is the culprit in this disease and antibiotics are used to treat it.

Whooping cough is highly contagious. In fact, you can get it just by breathing the air in a room in which someone with whooping cough sneezed or coughed.

The first symptoms of pertussis are:

  • flu-like symptoms and runny nose
  • sneezing
  • a low grade fever
  • a cough

The cough slowly worsens over a couple of weeks. The whooping sound comes when the infected person breathes back in after a coughing spell.

Incubation is about a week, and someone is contagious from the time the first symptoms appear until after the cough is cured.

Again, whooping cough can be prevented with a vaccine. The CDC recommends the first inoculation at 2 months followed by more vaccines at 4, 6 and 15 months and again at 4 to 6 years. Unfortunately, vaccination does not provide lifelong immunity. The American College of Chest Physicians (ACCP) says adults up to 65 years old should receive the special adult vaccine for whooping cough, even if they were vaccinated as children. CDC suggests that children be reassessed on their needs around the ages of 11 and 12.

Chicken Pox

Chicken pox is caused by the varicella zoster virus. It's the same one that causes shingles in adults. Chicken pox usually begins with an itchy rash of small red bumps in the scalp that spreads to the back and the stomach before spreading to the face. The bumps turn into blisters, which then crust over.

Chicken pox is contagious from a couple of days before the rash shows up and until all the blisters have scarred over. A vast majority of the population used to get chicken pox as a child. According to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC), there once was a time that 95 percent of people got chicken pox before they reached adulthood. However, that is changing with the advent of a vaccine for chicken pox.

In 1995, a vaccine was developed. The American Academy of Pediatrics (AAP) recommends the vaccine for healthy children at 12 to 18 months of age. According to AAP, all children should have received the vaccine by their thirteenth birthdays. CDC recommends two doses of the vaccine: the first between 12 and 18 months, the second between 4 and 6 years old.

Adults who have not had chicken pox should talk with their doctors. If you aren't sure if you were ever exposed, there are blood tests available to determine if you are immune or not. Chicken pox is especially dangerous in women who are pregnant.


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