Rubella (German Measles)

What is rubella?

Rubella is sometimes called German measles. It's a viral infection. It usually causes a mild illness in children. Adults have a slightly more severe illness. But the virus can cause serious birth defects in pregnant people. A vaccine is effective in preventing rubella. Because of successful vaccine programs, rubella is no longer found in the U.S. But it's still common in other countries.

What causes rubella?

Rubella is caused by a virus. It's spread from person-to-person through droplets coughed or sneezed into the air by an infected person. It takes 2 to 3 weeks after exposure for symptoms to develop. Most outbreaks of rubella happen among young adults and adults who have not been vaccinated and have not had the disease before.

Who is at risk for rubella?

If you have not had rubella or the vaccine, you are at risk for the disease.

What are the symptoms of rubella?

Each person may have different symptoms. But these are the most common symptoms of rubella:

  • Rash that usually begins on the face and moves to the trunk, arms, and legs (lasts about 3 days)

  • Slight fever

  • Enlarged lymph nodes

  • Headache

  • Joint pain and swelling, especially in women

About 1 in 4 to 1 in 2 people infected with rubella will not have any symptoms.

Rubella in pregnant people may cause serious complications in the fetus. This includes a range of severe birth defects.

The symptoms of rubella may look like other health problems. Always talk with your healthcare provider for a diagnosis.

How is rubella diagnosed?

Along with a complete health history and medical exam, diagnosis is often confirmed with blood tests.

How is rubella treated?

Treatment for rubella is usually limited to acetaminophen for fever and other symptoms. There are no medicines to treat the virus infection itself.

What are possible complications of rubella?

For most people, rubella is a mild disease and does not cause complications. If a person is infected with the disease while pregnant, their unborn baby can develop defects. Possible birth defects caused by rubella include:

  • Deafness

  • Congenital cataracts

  • Heart defects

  • Intellectual disability

  • Liver and spleen damage

Can rubella be prevented?

The best protection against rubella is the measles, mumps, and rubella (MMR) vaccine. It protects against these 3 viruses. MMR makes most people immune to rubella (along with measles and mumps). Also, people who have had rubella are immune for life.

Usually, the first dose of the MMR vaccine is given when a child is 12 to 15 months old. A second dose is often given at 4 to 6 years of age. People who are considering pregnancy should talk with their healthcare provider about being tested for immunity to measles, mumps, and rubella. If not protected, it's best to get vaccinated at least 4 weeks before trying to become pregnant. Teens and adults who are not up to date on their MMR vaccines should talk with their healthcare provider. Unvaccinated people can get rubella while traveling to countries where the disease is common.

When should I call my healthcare provider?

Rubella usually goes away on its own. But tell your healthcare provider if:

  • Your symptoms get worse or you have new symptoms.

  • You are pregnant and aren't sure if you have been vaccinated against rubella.

  • You get a severe headache, stiff neck, earache, or problems with your vision either during the measles or afterward.

Key points about rubella

  • Rubella is a viral infection. It causes a mild illness in children and slightly more severe illness in adults.

  • If a person is infected with the disease while pregnant, their unborn baby can be born with severe birth defects.

  • Rubella can be prevented by the combination vaccine for measles, mumps, and rubella.

Next steps

Tips to help you get the most from a visit to your healthcare provider:

  • Know the reason for your visit and what you want to happen.

  • Before your visit, write down questions you want answered.

  • Bring someone with you to help you ask questions and remember what your provider tells you.

  • At the visit, write down the name of a new diagnosis and any new medicines, treatments, or tests. Also write down any new instructions your provider gives you.

  • Know why a new medicine or treatment is prescribed and how it will help you. Also know what the side effects are.

  • Ask if your condition can be treated in other ways.

  • Know why a test or procedure is recommended and what the results could mean.

  • Know what to expect if you do not take the medicine or have the test or procedure.

  • If you have a follow-up appointment, write down the date, time, and purpose for that visit.

  • Know how you can contact your provider if you have questions, especially after office hours and on weekends and holidays.

Online Medical Reviewer: Barry Zingman MD
Online Medical Reviewer: Raymond Turley Jr PA-C
Online Medical Reviewer: Stacey Wojcik MBA BSN RN
Date Last Reviewed: 9/1/2023
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