Sometimes rubella is known as German measles, but the word German in the name of this disease has nothing to do with the country. The name likely comes from the Latin term germanus meaning "similar." And indeed, rubella and measles (rubeola) share some characteristics, but they're caused by different viruses.
Rubella and measles are both contagious viral infections best known by the distinctive red rash that may appear on the skin of those who contract either illness. However, rubella isn't as infectious as measles and is usually not as severe, which is why it's also called three-day measles. There is one important exception, though: If a pregnant woman contracts rubella, especially during her first trimester, the virus can cause miscarriage, stillbirth or serious birth defects in the developing fetus - a condition known as congenital rubella syndrome. These defects can include deafness, growth retardation and heart problems.
The measles-mumps-rubella (MMR) vaccine, usually given to children twice before they reach school age, is highly effective in preventing the illness.
Signs and symptoms
Often the signs and symptoms of rubella are so mild that they're hard to notice, especially in children. If signs and symptoms do occur, they generally appear between two and three weeks after exposure to the virus. They typically last about two to three days and may include:
Rubella is caused by a virus that's passed from person to person. It can spread when an infected person coughs or sneezes, or it can spread by direct contact with an infected person's respiratory secretions, such as mucus. It can also be transmitted from a pregnant woman to her unborn child. A person with rubella is contagious from one week before the onset of the rash until about one to two weeks after the rash disappears.
Rubella is rare because most children are vaccinated against the infection at an early age. However, cases of rubella do exist, mostly in unvaccinated foreign-born adults.
The disease is still common in many parts of the world, although more than half of all countries now use a rubella vaccine. The prevalence of rubella in some other countries is something to consider before going abroad, especially if you're pregnant.
When to seek medical advice
Contact your doctor if you think you or your child may have been exposed to rubella or have some of the symptoms that might indicate rubella. Just remember: Children who receive even a single dose of the MMR vaccine are unlikely to develop rubella.
If you're contemplating getting pregnant, check your vaccination record to make sure you've received your MMR inoculations. It's best for women to be protected against rubella before pregnancy.
If you're pregnant, you'll likely undergo a routine screening for immunity to rubella. But if you've never received the vaccine and think you might have been exposed to rubella, contact your doctor immediately. A blood test might confirm that you're already immune and unlikely to develop rubella.
Screening and diagnosis
The rubella rash can look like many other viral rashes. So doctors usually confirm rubella with the help of laboratory tests.
If your doctor suspects that you have rubella, you may need a virus culture or a blood test, which can detect the presence of different types of rubella antibodies in your blood. These antibodies indicate whether you've had a recent or past infection or a rubella vaccine.