Health Library

Rubella (German Measles)

What is rubella?

Rubella, sometimes called German measles, is a viral infection. It usually causes a mild illness in children. Adults have a slightly more severe illness. The disease is spread person-to-person through droplets coughed or sneezed into the air by an infected person. It takes 2 to 3 weeks before symptoms to develop after exposure. Although the illness is mostly mild, the virus can cause serious birth defects in pregnant women. The vaccine is effective in preventing rubella.

What causes rubella?

Rubella is caused by a virus and is spread from person-to-person through droplets coughed or sneezed into the air by an infected person. Most outbreaks of rubella happen among young adults and adults who have not been vaccinated or have not had the disease before.

Who is at risk for rubella?

If you have not had the vaccine or never had rubella, you are at risk for the disease.

What are the symptoms of rubella?

The following are the most common symptoms of rubella. However, each person may experience symptoms differently. Symptoms may include:

  • Rash (usually begins at the face and progresses to the trunk, arms and legs, and lasts about 3 days)
  • Slight fever
  • Enlarged lymph nodes
  • Headache

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

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

How is rubella diagnosed?

Along with a complete medical history and medical exam, diagnosis is often confirmed with a throat culture and blood testing.

How is rubella treated?

Your healthcare provider will figure out the best treatment for you:

  • How old you are
  • Your overall health and past health
  • How sick you are
  • How well you can handle specific medicines, procedures, or therapies
  • Your opinion or preference

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

What are the complications of rubella?

For most people, rubella is a mild disease and does not cause complications. If a woman is infected with the disease while pregnant, her 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?

Measles, mumps, and rubella (MMR) is a childhood vaccine that protects against these 3 viruses. MMR makes most people immune to rubella (in addition to measles and mumps). 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 given at 4 to 6 years of age. However, if 28 days have passed since the first dose was given, a second dose may be given before the age of 4.

When should I call my healthcare provider?

Rubella usually resolves on its own. However, tell your healthcare provider if:

  • If your symptoms get worse or you have new symptoms
  • If you are pregnant and aren't sure if you have been vaccinated against rubella
  • If you get a severe headache, stiff neck, earache, or problems with your vision either during the measles or afterwards

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 woman is infected with the disease while pregnant, her 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.