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Rubella

Rubella - introduction

Rubella, also known as German measles, is an infectious disease caused by a virus. The virus is spread through droplets of moisture from the nose or throat of someone who is infected.

Rubella can be caught from face-to- face contact with someone who has the disease or even by being in the same room.

Rubella causes a red rash and a high temperature.

For most people it is a mild disease, but it can have serious consequences for pregnant women.

Rubella used to be common in children, but since the introduction of a vaccination programme in the 1980s, the disease has been almost entirely eradicated.

Rubella remains a notifiable disease under the Public Health (Infectious Diseases) Regulations 1988. This means that any doctor who diagnoses the infection must, by law, inform the local authority. This is to identify the source of the rubella infection and stop it spreading.

What happens if I get rubella?

The main symptoms of rubella are a rash which is a distinctive red-pink colour. It starts as spots, which can be itchy, before spreading from behind the ears to the head and neck and then other parts of the upper body. The rash usually lasts for up to a week.

Picture of Rubella

Other main symptoms are swollen lymph glands around the ears and back of the head, a high temperature of 38C or more and cold-like symptoms.

Other less common symptoms in adults are arthritis and arthralgia ( pain in a joint caused by inflammation).

In rare cases rubella can lead to serious complications. In one in 6,000 cases it can lead to inflammation of the brain; in one in 3,000 cases it can affect blood clotting.

The incubation period for rubella is 14 to 21 days, with most people developing a rash between 14 and 17 days after exposure.

In most cases rubella is a mild condition, but if you suspect you have the disease you should contact your doctor to have it confirmed. Phone the surgery, rather than visit, in case there are pregnant women in the waiting room.

Rubella can be diagnosed with a blood test.

Stay away from work and keep a child off school until you have consulted a doctor.

Why can rubella be dangerous if you are pregnant?

Some pregnant women will have immunity to rubella, either from having had the disease in the past or from being vaccinated. However, if a pregnant woman who does not have immunity catches the virus, she can pass it on to her unborn child.

The virus can cause a number of birth defects known as congenital rubella syndrome (CRS). Defects include mental handicap, cataract, deafness, heart abnormalities and slower than normal foetal growth.

The risk of a baby being affected by CRS and the severity of the birth defects depends on the mother’s stage of pregnancy when she catches the rubella virus.

  • Before 11 weeks of pregnancy the risk is 90%
  • Between the 11th and 16th weeks of pregnancy the risk is 10-20%
  • Between 16 and 20 weeks there is a minimal risk of deafness only
  • After 20 weeks there is no increased risk of abnormalities
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