Rubella (also called German measles or 3-day measles) used to be a common illness, which mostly affected school-age children. It is not the same as measles, which causes more severe symptoms than rubella. Now that many children are immunised, it is adults who may be more at risk because the effects of their childhood vaccinations may have worn off, or they may never have been vaccinated (especially males).
Rubella is not as contagious as chickenpox or measles, but before the introduction of widespread immunisation there were frequent epidemics among schoolchildren. It is caused by a virus, which is passed from one person to another by coughing or sneezing.
Most people will develop a slight cold and fever, sore throat, swollen glands in the neck, rash and aching joints. The rash generally appears on the face and scalp first and spreads to the body and arms the same day. The rubella rash fades after 2 to 3 days, although in rare cases the disease may last as long as a week. For some people there will be no symptoms at all. As the symptoms are so mild, it can be quite tricky to diagnose correctly. The only way to confirm the diagnosis is with a blood test.
Serious complications of rubella infection are rare, other than in pregnant women. If a pregnant woman contracts rubella, especially in the first trimester, the virus can damage the developing baby. The baby may develop congenital heart defects, cataracts, mental retardation and deafness.
Treatment is aimed at reducing the symptoms and preventing the spread of infection. Paracetamol can be taken as directed for joint aches and fever. Drink plenty of clear fluids and rest until you feel well again.
It is important to stay at home if diagnosed with rubella. Do not come into contact with anyone you know who may be in the early stages of pregnancy. All children, both boys and girls, should be immunised against rubella. The vaccine is given in combination with 2 other vaccines — those for measles and mumps — at 12 months and 4 years of age.
Ideally, women wanting to get pregnant should have a blood test to see whether they are immune to rubella before they conceive. If they are not immune, they can be immunised but should avoid falling pregnant in the 28 days following the vaccination. Vaccination is avoided in pregnancy.
Pregnant women should be checked for rubella immunity — a routine blood test in early pregnancy. Even if the blood test carried out at a previous pregnancy proved immunity to rubella, the test must be repeated at each pregnancy. If you think you might be pregnant and your immunity has not been tested, check with your doctor.
If you are pregnant and are exposed to rubella, see your doctor as soon as possible.
Last Reviewed: 12 October 2009