Rubella (also known as german measles) is a viral infection that used to be common in children. It is usually a mild condition that gets better without treatment in seven to 10 days.

Symptoms of rubella

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 if you suspect that you or your child has rubella.

Do not 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 that 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, such as:

eye problems, such as cataracts (cloudy patches on the lens of the eye)
heart abnormalities
brain damage
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, with only eight cases reported between 2002 and 2011.

Read more about the complications of rubella.

How it spreads

Rubella is caused by a type of virus called a togavirus. It is spread in a similar way to a cold or flu, through droplets of moisture from the nose or throat of someone who is 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 will 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 six days after the rash starts to avoid infecting others and try to avoid contact with pregnant women during this time.

Who is affected

Rubella is rare in the UK nowadays. Most cases occur in people who came to the UK from countries that do not 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.

During 2012, there were around 65 confirmed cases of rubella in England and Wales, an increase from only six cases in 2011.

Treating rubella

There is no specific treatment for rubella, but symptoms will normally pass within seven 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 should not be given to children under 16 years old.

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 is given in two doses, one when they are 12-13 months old and a booster when they are three to five years old.

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

The MMR vaccine can also be given to older children and adults who have not been fully immunised before.

Contact your GP if you are uncertain about whether you or your child's vaccinations are up to date.

Read more about preventing rubella.