What Causes Rubella?
Rubella is caused by a virus. It used to be called "German measles," though it’s not caused by the same virus that causes measles.
Rubella spreads when someone who is infected coughs or sneezes tiny germ-filled droplets into the air and onto surfaces. People who catch the virus are contagious for up to a week before and a week after the rash appears. Some people don't know they're infected because they don't have symptoms, but they can still pass the virus on to others.
Who's at Risk?
Until the 1960s, rubella was a common childhood infection. Thanks to the MMR vaccine, the virus stopped spreading in the United States around 2004. Yet it still spreads in Asia, Africa, and other parts of the world. People from these areas sometimes bring the rubella virus to the United States with them when they travel.
Anyone can catch rubella if they're exposed to the virus and haven't been vaccinated. Pregnant women face serious risk, because rubella can cause serious complications in unborn babies.
What Are the Symptoms?
Rubella is usually mild in children. Sometimes it doesn't cause any symptoms.
A pink or red-spotted rash is often the first sign of infection. It starts on the face, and then spreads down to the rest of the body. The rash lasts about 3 days. This is why rubella is sometimes called the "3-day measles."
Along with the rash, you or your child might have:
What Are the Complications?
The most serious of these could happen during pregnancy, when the virus can pass from mother to baby in the womb. The risk is highest during the first 3 months of pregnancy.
Babies who are infected can have serious birth defects, called congenital rubella syndrome (CRS). This is very rare in the United States, but you can get it if you're infected with rubella while traveling to another country where the virus spreads.
CRS is a group of health problems in a baby that can include:
Some women who get rubella during pregnancy have a miscarriage. In other cases, the baby doesn't survive long after birth. It’s best to get vaccinated against rubella before you get pregnant to protect your baby. You should wait at least 4 weeks after getting the vaccine to become pregnant. If you’re already pregnant, you shouldn’t get the vaccine.
Rubella can also cause complications in women who aren't pregnant, and in men. Young girls and women who get it can develop sore joints (arthritis). This side effect usually goes away within 2weeks, but a small number of women will have it long term. It rarely occurs in men and children.
In rare cases, rubella can cause more serious health problems, like brain infections or swelling and bleeding problems.
How Can You Prevent Rubella?
The best way is to get vaccinated. Children need two doses of the MMR vaccine. They should get the first when they’re between 12 and 15 months old. They should get the second between four and six years of age.
Babies who’ll be traveling to a country where rubella is common can get vaccinated as early as six months.
If you're a woman of childbearing age and you haven't been vaccinated, get the MMR vaccine at least one month before you get pregnant. This is most important if you plan to travel to countries where rubella spreads.
How Is Rubella Treated?
It’s a virus, so antibiotics won’t work.
Most of the time, the infection in children is so mild, it doesn't need to be treated. You can bring down your child's fever and ease aches with pain relievers like children's acetaminophen (Tylenol) or ibuprofen (Motrin). Don't give your child or teen aspirin, because of the risk for a rare but serious condition called Reye syndrome.
If you’re pregnant and think you’ve caught rubella, call your doctor right away. You may be able to take antibodies called hyperimmune globulin to help your body fight off the virus.