Rubella (german measles) is a viral infection that used to be common in children. It's usually a mild condition that gets better without treatment in 7 to 10 days.

Symptoms of rubella include:

  • a red-pink skin rash made up of small spots
  • swollen glands around the head and neck
  • a high temperature (fever)
  • cold-like symptoms such as a cough and runny nose
  • aching and painful joints – more common in adults

The symptoms of rubella usually only last a few days, but your glands may be swollen for several weeks.

Read more about the symptoms of rubella.

When to see your GP

You should always contact your GP or NHS 111 if you suspect rubella.

Don't visit your GP surgery without phoning first, as arrangements may need to be made to reduce the risk of infecting others.

Read more about diagnosing rubella.

Rubella and pregnancy

The main time rubella becomes a serious concern is if a pregnant woman catches the infection during the first 20 weeks of her pregnancy.

This is because the rubella virus can disrupt the development of the baby and cause a wide range of health problems, including:

The birth defects caused by the rubella virus are known as congenital rubella syndrome (CRS).

Since the introduction of the mumps, measles and rubella (MMR) vaccine, CRS is now very rare in the UK.

Read more about the complications of rubella.

How it spreads

Rubella is caused by a type of virus called a togavirus. It's spread in a similar way to a cold or flu, through droplets of moisture from the nose or throat of someone who's infected. These droplets are released into the air when someone coughs, sneezes or talks.

You can become infected if you come into contact with the droplets from an infected person, although it can take two to three weeks for symptoms to develop.

If you have rubella, you'll be infectious to other people from one week before symptoms develop, and for up to four days after the rash first appeared.

You should stay away from school or work for four days after the rash starts to avoid infecting others, and try to avoid contact with pregnant women during this time.

Who's affected?

Rubella is rare in the UK nowadays. Most cases occur in people who came to the UK from countries that don't offer routine immunisation against rubella.

However, there can occasionally be large outbreaks of rubella in the UK. One of these occurred in 1996, when there were close to 4,000 cases in England and Wales. There were 12 confirmed cases of rubella in England and Wales in 2013.

Treating rubella

There's no specific treatment for rubella, but symptoms normally pass within 7 to 10 days. If you or your child are finding the symptoms uncomfortable, you can treat some of these at home while you wait for the infection to pass.

For example, paracetamol or ibuprofen can be used to reduce the fever and treat any aches or pains. Liquid infant paracetamol can be used for young children. Aspirin shouldn't be given to children under the age of 16 years.

Read more about treating rubella.

Preventing rubella

The best way to prevent rubella is to be immunised with the MMR vaccine. Children are offered this vaccine as part of their routine childhood immunisation programme.

It's given in two doses: one when they're 12 to 13 months old and a booster when they're three to five years old.

Routine vaccination is important because it reduces the risk of large outbreaks and helps protect pregnant women and their babies.

The MMR vaccine can also be given to older children and adults who haven't been fully immunised before.

Contact your GP if you're uncertain whether you or your child are up-to-date with vaccinations.

Read more about preventing rubella.

Advice for pregnant women

Contact your GP if you're pregnant and think you may have been in close contact with someone with rubella.

They'll be able to refer you for tests to see if you've contracted rubella, although this is unlikely.

Page last reviewed: 03/11/2015

Next review due: 03/11/2017