German Measles (Rubella)

Rubella (roo-BELL-a) is the medical name for German measles. Usually a mild viral infection that causes a rash, it can cause severe birth defects if a woman gets it while pregnant.


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Immunization Infection

What Is Rubella?

Rubella is not considered a serious illness, except when a pregnant woman gets the infection. It is spread through the air from an infected person to another person. The virus incubates for a period of 2 to 3 weeks in an infected person before symptoms appear.

A person who has contracted rubella can transmit the infection to another person from a period of a week before symptoms appear to about a week after they fade. Rubella infection occurs mainly in children between the ages of 6 and 12 if they have not been immunized.

What Are the Symptoms of Rubella?

The main symptom of rubella is a rash that appears first on the face. It then spreads to a person's arms, legs, and body. The rash generally lasts for 2 to 3 days. Some people with rubella also develop a slight fever. Sometimes the lymph nodes at the back of the neck become swollen.

There are cases of rubella where no symptoms appear at all. Among adolescents and adults who contract rubella, the symptoms can include headache and a high fever. Sometimes the joints of the body become inflamed from the virus, but this condition passes after a short time.

How Is Rubella Diagnosed and Treated?

The diagnosis of rubella is usually made by the patient's history and by physical exam of its typical rash. A throat swab isolating the rubella virus from the patient is used to confirm the diagnosis. Sometimes a blood test is used looking for antibodies to the virus in the patient's blood.

There is no specific treatment for rubella when a young person contracts the infection. Sometimes acetaminophen (a-set-a-MEE-no-fen) is used to help reduce fever if it is present.

Can Rubella Be Prevented?

Rubella can be prevented through immunization. At one time rubella was a common infection throughout the world. Today, there are few cases reported because of widespread vaccination programs. In the United States, all children must be vaccinated against the rubella virus before starting school. In 1993 only 200 cases of rubella were reported to the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services.

What Is Congenital Rubella?

Congenital rubella occurs when the rubella virus has been passed from the mother to the infant during pregnancy. The most dangerous period for a fetus is in the early months of pregnancy, when rubella can cause a miscarriage (spontaneous termination of the pregnancy) or birth defects.

Some of the birth defects congenital rubella can cause include:

  • deafness
  • heart disease
  • mental retardation
  • eye disorders
  • cerebral palsy, a brain disorder that impairs movement
  • purpura (PUR-pur-a), a bleeding disorder that appears as purple rashes

Doctors advise women who have not been vaccinated against rubella to do so before they become pregnant. The vaccination might also be harmful to a fetus and cannot be given to a woman who is already pregnant.



Oldstone, Michael. Viruses, Plagues, and History. New York: Oxford University Press, 1998.

See also

Organization website from the Nemours Foundation contains information about a number of infections, including rubella.

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