Rubella

An illness, also known as German measles, that is usually mild but can severely damage a developing fetus

  • Age, gender, genetics, and lifestyle are not significant factors

Rubella, also called German measles, usually causes little more than a mild rash. However, because it can cause serious birth defects in a fetus if the mother contracts the illness during early pregnancy, unimmunized pregnant women should avoid contact with an infected person. The disease is caused by the highly contagious rubella virus, which is transmitted through airborne droplets from the coughs and sneezes of infected people. Rubella has become less common in the developed world because of routine childhood immunization.

What are the symptoms?

The symptoms of rubella appear from 2–3 weeks after infection and may include all or some of the following:

  • Swollen lymph nodes at the back of the neck and behind the ears. In some cases, lymph nodes throughout the body are swollen, including those in the armpits and groin.

  • After 2–3 days, a pink, nonitchy rash, first on the face and then the body, that usually disappears within 3 days.

Children may have mild fever, but adolescents and adults can develop high fever and headache. Rarely, several joints may become inflamed for a short time (see Reactive arthritis). A person who has rubella is infectious from about 7 days before the rash appears until about 5 days after the rash has appeared.

Are there complications?

If you contract rubella in early pregnancy, there is a risk of miscarriage or, if your baby is carried to term, he or she is at serious risk of being born with abnormalities, such as congenital deafness, congenital heart disease, clouding of the lens in the eye (see Cataract), and the nervous system disorder cerebral palsy. The greatest risk is during the first 3 months of pregnancy, and the earlier rubella is contracted, the more likely the baby will be seriously affected. However, contracting rubella later in pregnancy also puts the baby at risk.

Rubella rash

The light pink rash of rubella is shown here on an arm. The rash usually first develops on the face and gradually spreads to the trunk and then to the limbs.

What might be done?

Your doctor may suspect rubella from the symptoms, but the rash is not distinctive and other viral infections can produce similar symptoms. He or she may arrange for a blood test to confirm the diagnosis. There is no specific treatment for this disease, but drinking plenty of cool fluids and taking over-the-counter painkillers, such as paracetamol, may help to reduce fever and ease discomfort. Most affected people recover in about 10 days, and one attack usually gives lifelong immunity against the virus.

If you are pregnant and have rubella or have been in contact with someone with the disease, it is important to discuss with your doctor the risk to the fetus and how best to proceed.

Can it be prevented?

Babies are routinely immunized against rubella as part of the standard measles, mumps, and rubella (MMR) immunization that is given at 12–15 months and then again between 3 and 5 years (see Routine immunizations). Immunization or an attack of rubella provides long-term immunity. Nevertheless, women who are planning a pregnancy should be tested for antibodies against rubella and should receive advice about immunization.

From the 2010 revision of the Complete Home Medical Guide © Dorling Kindersley Limited.

The subjects, conditions and treatments covered in this encyclopaedia are for information only and may not be covered by your insurance product should you make a claim.

Back to top