What is rubella?

Rubella is caused by the rubella virus. Rubella is sometimes called German measles, but it is not the same disease as measles.

Rubella is usually a mild illness, with 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 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 9 in every 10 babies whose mothers get rubella in the first 10 weeks of pregnancy will have one or more of these problems.

Symptoms

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 3 days.

Who is at risk

Rubella can affect people at any age, but the following people have a higher risk of infection:

  • 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.

Rubella in pregnant women is of the most concern because of the serious problems the virus causes to unborn babies.

Rubella is rare in Australia and other countries with immunisation programs. Cases and outbreaks still occur, so it is important to continue vaccinating children to prevent the spread of the disease.

How it spreads

Rubella spreads:

  • when an infected person coughs or sneezes, and you breathe it in
  • from a pregnant woman to her developing baby through the bloodstream.

If you have rubella you will be contagious from 1 week before and until 1 week after the rash appears. 

You can help stop the disease spreading by:

  • staying 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
  • covering your coughs and sneezes.

Prevention

The most effective way to prevent rubella is vaccination.

If you are a woman who is planning to have a baby, you should have a blood test to check that you have sufficient immunity to protect you and your baby.

Find out more about getting vaccinated against rubella

Diagnosis

Your doctor can diagnose rubella by:

  • examining the rash
  • checking for other symptoms, such as fever, joint pain, swollen lymph glands
  • asking you if you’ve been in contact with someone who has rubella
  • performing a blood test.

It is important to let the receptionist know of your concern so that you can be separated from other people in the waiting room.

If you have rubella your doctor may be required to notify your state or territory health department.

Treatment

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.

Contacts

National Immunisation Hotline

 

Last updated: 
7 November 2018