Rubella and pregnancy
What is rubella?
Rubella is a contagious disease caused by the rubella virus and is commonly known as German measles or three-day measles. However, rubella is not the same as measles. A person with rubella can spread the virus through droplets in the air when they cough or sneeze. Rubella usually causes a rash, swollen glands and often a fever.
The rubella virus is uncommon among Australians because of the widespread uptake of vaccination during childhood. While for most people, rubella is usually mild, it is very dangerous for the unborn child of a pregnant woman. If a pregnant woman catches rubella, it can cause a miscarriage, stillbirth or serious birth defects.
In rare cases, rubella can cause arthritis, other forms of joint pain or other rare complications. If you have been diagnosed with rubella and have concerns about any health issues, speak with your doctor.
What are the symptoms of rubella?
While the best-known symptom of rubella is a pink or red rash, adults commonly experience the following symptoms before a rash appears:
- sore throat
- runny nose
- generally feeling unwell
Symptoms of rubella will generally begin to show between 14 to 21 days after infection. However, many people who have the rubella virus do not feel unwell or show any symptoms at all.
If you have rubella, you will likely experience swollen glands, especially at the back of the neck and behind the ears. The rash itself may appear as small dots which form a larger, reddened area. The rash will usually first appear on your face and then spread to your neck, upper body, arms and legs. It can last up to 5 days and may or may not be itchy. As the rash begins to fade, it may start to flake.
Rubella infection before pregnancy
In most cases, previous infection or vaccination will make you immune to rubella, meaning that you can’t be infected again. However, if you are planning pregnancy or you are already pregnant, whether or not you have previously had rubella or the vaccine, it is important to ask your doctor for a simple blood test called the rubella antibody screening.
Rubella antibodies are a type of protein in your body that learns how to fight rubella disease should it enter your bloodstream again. This test will show if your body doesn’t have the rubella antibodies, and if so, you may be offered the vaccine to protect future pregnancies.
What can happen if I catch rubella while pregnant?
A woman who catches rubella during pregnancy can transfer the virus to her baby through her bloodstream. A baby born with rubella is said to have congenital rubella syndrome.
If a woman catches rubella within the first 11 weeks of pregnancy, her baby has a very high chance of being born with the syndrome, while approximately 1 in 3 babies of women infected with rubella between weeks 13 and 16 will be born with it. If a pregnant mother is infected after week 16, it is unlikely her baby will be born with rubella.
When rubella infection occurs early in a woman’s pregnancy, the effects on her unborn baby can be severe, and include:
- growth problems
- heart problems
- vision and hearing problems
If you are pregnant and think you have been in contact with rubella, it’s important you speak to your doctor as soon as possible about getting a blood test.
Can rubella be treated during pregnancy?
Unfortunately, there is no treatment available to prevent a baby from catching rubella if their pregnant mother is infected. The rubella vaccine can help prevent a pregnant woman from catching the virus, but once the virus is found in her bloodstream, it is too late to be vaccinated.
How do I protect myself from catching rubella?
The best way to protect yourself from catching rubella is through vaccination. If you are planning a pregnancy, speak to your doctor about a rubella screening test to check if you have the antibodies or if you need the vaccine. Once you have been vaccinated, avoid falling pregnant for at least one month. If you think you might be pregnant less than one month after rubella vaccination, speak to your doctor.
A woman who is already pregnant cannot be given the rubella vaccine.
Vaccinations and pregnancy
Some vaccinations are recommended before pregnancy, while others you can safely have during pregnancy.
Rubella immunisation is best given in 2 doses during childhood, at the ages of 12 months and 18 months of age. These vaccinations are free through the National Immunisation Program. If you did not receive one or both of these vaccinations at the suggested age, you can still get vaccinated. However, there may be a cost involved.
Rubella in babies and children
Find out how babies and children can catch rubella, how to treat your child at home, and when to have them vaccinated.
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Last reviewed: April 2021