Medical quality assurance by Dr. Albrecht Nonnenmacher, MD at February 1, 2016

Rubella used to be a very common viral infection with an accompanying rash. Also known as German measles, rubella was declared eradicated in North and South America in 2015 as a result of vaccination. Though mild in nature, it can be dangerous, particularly for pregnant women and their unborn children.


Definition & Facts

Rubella is a disease caused by the rubella virus. The disease spreads through fluid contact with an infected person, and can take several weeks to incubate, producing symptoms normally after about 14 days. In a general sense, rubella causes swollen lymph nodes, fever, malaise, and near the end of the virus, a rash that is mildly itchy.

In pregnant women, there are several complications, as the virus can spread to the fetus and cause many significant birth defects, so vaccination is of the utmost importance for any woman who is pregnant or may become pregnant.

Symptoms & Complaints

After exposure, a general feeling of sickness usually appears, accompanied by a fever, coughing, sneezing, and body aches. Particularly in adults and teens, sore throat and overall body soreness are common, as well as a more elevated fever than that seen in younger children. As the infection nears the end of its course, a rash appears all over the body, typically starting on the face and spreading down the trunk, possibly reaching the extremities.

The rash is generally less irritating than other common childhood rashes, like chickenpox. Though a great deal of viruses can cause body rashes in young children, rubella has a rash as a specific part of the course of the disease. It starts as a blush or reddening of the face, then transforms into a more specific pinpoint pattern as it spreads over the body.

Joint pain and eye pain are also common in adults, as the disease tends to affect older patients more harshly. Younger children may be fussy, or may simply present with a rash. In pregnant women, the disease often hits harder, and can spread to the baby, causing a range of complications known as congenital rubella syndrome that can cause vision loss, hearing loss, and heart damage, among other problems.


The rubella virus causes the disease of the same name. It is spread through bodily fluid contact, particularly mucous and saliva. Sharing food or beverages, kissing, or being exposed to an infected person while they sneeze or cough are the most common routes of transmission. Rubella is highly contagious but luckily its symptoms are mild. As the organism multiplies in the body, the reaction of the immune system can cause inflammation, fever, and localized swelling as it fights off the rubella. This can cause the characteristic joint and body aches, eye pain, and rise in body temperature.

Diagnosis & Tests

The diagnosis of rubella is often done by sight and a symptom description, but a definite answer can be achieved through a blood test. A run of a blood sample can tell if the recent disease was in fact rubella, and a patient history including vaccine listing can assist in diagnosis.

Most often the disease resolves on its own in a few days without any real problems, so a diagnosis isn't critical, and the treatment is rest and palliative medicine to alleviate symptoms. This makes it significantly less likely that a doctor would even need to be consulted, unless there is worry about the nature of the rash in a very young child.

Treatment & Therapy

The primary treatment for rubella is preventing it in the first place, and this is routinely done through administration of the MMR vaccine (measles, mumps, rubella) given to children. It is so common a vaccine now that many pharmacies have it as a part of their regularly offered inoculations. In the event that the disease is contracted, bed rest, plenty of fluids, and medicines to relieve the symptoms, like ibuprofen for pain and fever, are the preferred methods of treatment. The virus typically resolves on its own in a few days to a week.

For a pregnant woman who contracts rubella, professional medical treatment is absolutely necessary to formulate a course of action to address the potential side-effects of the disease on the fetus. For complications involving young children, particularly if there is an accompanying high fever, medical advice should be sought out.

Though complications are rare, they can cause permanent damage, particularly in babies and toddlers. As with all fevers, children need to taking in extra fluids, and breastfed babies in particular should be offered to feed once every ten to fifteen minutes. Dehydration from fever comes on quickly in young children, so hydration and nutrition is essential.

Prevention & Prophylaxis

Avoiding anyone who might have not been vaccinated, particularly when they are displaying a rash, is one of the best methods of preventing or lessening the chance of contracting the disease. The primary method for avoiding rubella like all childhood diseases is to ensure that children are vaccinated.

For people who are unsure if they've been vaccinated, a blood culture from a doctor is a great way to find out which inoculations are missing. From there, the doctor can begin filling the holes in vaccination schedules, and this is particularly important for people who have children in school or daycare, or those who work closely with children in their jobs.

Proper hygiene, such as hand washing and covering of the mouth and nose when sneezing and coughing, will go a long way to helping people stay healthy. For those who are infected, avoiding close contact with people, particularly people with weakened immune systems, as well as the very old and very young is critical.

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