What is rubella?

Rubella is a contagious viral illness that is generally mild, causing a fever, rash and swollen lymph glands. However, if contracted by pregnant women during the first 10 weeks of pregnancy, the disease can cause life-long problems for their babies.

If a pregnant woman gets rubella early in her pregnancy, the baby can be born with:

  • deafness
  • blindness
  • heart problems
  • brain damage
  • growth problems
  • swelling in their brain, liver or lungs.

About nine in every 10 babies whose mothers get rubella in the first 10 weeks of pregnancy will have one or more of these problems.

Rubella is sometimes called German measles, but it is not the same disease as measles.

Rubella is caused by the rubella virus.

What are the symptoms of rubella?

Rubella symptoms include:

  • rash
  • swollen lymph glands
  • joint pain
  • mild fever
  • headache
  • runny nose
  • sore red eyes.

Symptoms usually start 14 to 21 days after catching rubella, but about half the people who catch it don’t have any symptoms. Most people who have symptoms recover in about three days.

Who is at risk from rubella?

Rubella is rare in Australia and other countries with widespread immunisation programs. Cases and outbreaks still occur, so it is important to continue vaccinating children to prevent the spread of infection to pregnant women. Anyone who hasn’t been vaccinated against rubella is at risk of getting the disease, in particular:

  • travellers to (and visitors from) areas where rubella vaccination programs are not widespread
  • childcare workers
  • people who work in healthcare settings such as hospitals
  • unborn babies whose mothers are not immune to rubella.

Disease in pregnant women is the most concerning because of how the virus affects unborn babies.

Rubella can affect people at any age.

How do you get rubella?

Rubella can spread when an infected person coughs or sneezes and another person breathes it in.

Rubella can also be transmitted from a pregnant woman to her developing baby through the bloodstream.

How do you prevent rubella?

Vaccination is a safe and effective way to protect against rubella.

If you are planning to have a baby, you should have a blood test to check that you have sufficient antibodies to protect you and your baby.

For more information on rubella immunisation, see Rubella immunisation service.

If you have rubella you need to stay away from childcare, school, work or other places where you could spread the infection. Your doctor will tell you when you are no longer infectious.

How do you know if you have rubella?

If you think you or one of your family members has rubella, see your doctor. It is important to let the receptionist know of your concern so that you can be separated from other people in the waiting room.

Your doctor may ask about your symptoms and whether you have been in contact with someone who has rubella. If your doctor thinks you have rubella, they may sometimes do a blood test to confirm the diagnosis.

How do you get treated for rubella?

There is no specific treatment for rubella. You can relieve the symptoms by:

  • getting plenty of rest
  • drinking plenty of fluids
  • taking paracetamol for pain or fever.

If you get rubella when you are pregnant, your doctor will refer you to a specialist to get more advice.

More information

Contacts

If you need advice or more information about immunisation, go to our Immunisation contacts page.

 

Last updated: 
4 June 2018