Updated January 2009

What Is Rubella?

Rubella, also known as “German measles”, is a viral infection characterized by a red rash. Rubella is different from red measles.

What Are the Symptoms of Rubella?

Rubella is usually a mild illness, especially in children. Up to half of infected people will have no symptoms at all. Common symptoms include:

  • A mild fever, red eyes, and aches and pains.
  • A red, itchy rash, which usually begins on the face and spreads throughout the body. The rash lasts about 3 days.
  • Swollen lymph glands, typically in the back of the neck and behind the ears.
  • Joint pain and swelling can occur in adults.

How Do You Get Rubella?

Rubella is spread through respiratory droplets when an infected person coughs or sneezes. The virus can also spread by direct contact with the nose or throat secretions of an infected person. Rubella spreads easily among unvaccinated persons who spend long periods of time in close contact with each other, such as at home, school, daycare or workplace.

How Soon Do the Symptoms Appear?

Symptoms usually begin 2-3 weeks after exposure.

When Am I Contagious?

You are able to spread the infection from 7 days before to 7 days after the onset of the rash.

What Is the Treatment for Rubella?

There is no specific treatment for rubella. Supportive care in hospital may be needed for severe infections but most people infected with rubella will recover at home.

What Are the Complications of Rubella?

While rubella is usually a mild illness in children, it can be serious if a pregnant woman becomes infected. It can cause Congenital Rubella Syndrome (CRS) to the growing baby of a pregnant woman. CRS causes deafness, blindness, heart damage or mental disabilities to the fetus. If the woman becomes infected within the first 11 weeks of pregnancy, her chance of giving birth to a baby with CRS may be as high as 85%. Miscarriage is also common.

The risk of Congenital Rubella Syndrome decreases if the exposure to rubella occurs after the first trimester, and is almost zero by the end of the third trimester. However, if a woman contracts rubella near the end of her pregnancy, the baby may be born with rubella and can be infectious to others.

Rubella can also cause encephalitis (swelling of the brain).

Can Rubella Be Prevented?

Yes. A vaccine, commonly given as the measles, mumps, rubella (MMR) vaccine can protect against rubella. One dose of the vaccine is over 97% effective to prevent a rubella infection. In Ontario, the MMR vaccine is given as two doses to children after their first birthday as part of the routine immunization schedule. Women planning to get pregnant should ensure they have had one dose of the MMR vaccine. Adults born before 1957 are generally considered to be immune due to exposure to rubella during childhood. Once a person has had rubella they are protected for life.

Is the MMR Vaccine Safe?

Yes. Most people will have no side effects. Serious side effects from the vaccine are very rare. Side effects are less common after the second dose of the vaccine. Possible side effects include:

  • Redness, soreness or swelling where the needle was given.
  • A rash in the 5 to 12 days after the vaccine is given that may last for 1 to 3 days.
  • Fever in the first 24 hours or 5 to 12 days after the vaccination. A high fever can cause a febrile seizure in a young child. One in 3,000 children with a fever may develop a seizure.
  • Swelling of the glands in the neck that may last for several days.
  • Temporary joint pain and swelling or muscle aches within 1 to 3 weeks after vaccination.
  • Meningitis (an infection of the lining of the brain) is extremely rare (1 in 800,000).
  • A mild, temporary blood clotting disorder, thrombocytopenia (drop in platelets) occurs rarely within 2 months after immunization and resolves on its own within a month.

What If I Am Not Sure If I Have Had the Vaccine or Rubella Infection?

A blood test can be used to determine if someone is immune to rubella either from vaccination or past infection. It is important that pregnant women or women planning to get pregnant ensure they have either had the rubella vaccine (MMR) or are immune to rubella through the blood test.

What Should I Do If I Think I Have Rubella?

Call your doctor and the local health unit right away. If you are diagnosed with rubella, stay home for seven days after your rash first appears. Avoid all contact with unvaccinated people including infants less than one year of age and with pregnant women.

What Should I Do If I Think I Have Been Exposed to Rubella?

If you think you have been exposed to rubella, call your healthcare provider right away to see if you need to be vaccinated. Avoid going to your healthcare provider or to another healthcare location like a walk-in clinic before calling ahead and letting them know that you may have been exposed to rubella. If you have not been vaccinated, you should do so immediately, unless you are pregnant.

What Should I Do If I’m Pregnant and I Come into Contact with Someone with Rubella?

Call your doctor immediately. Your doctor can check your immunity to rubella with a simple blood test. Vaccination cannot be given while pregnant.

More Information

Call Toronto Public Health at 416-338-7600 (TTY at 416-392-0658) or speak to your health care provider.