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Rubella and pregnancy

6-minute read

Key facts

  • Rubella is a contagious viral illness.
  • If you catch rubella while pregnant it may cause serious problems for your baby.
  • Rubella can be prevented through immunisation.

What is rubella?

Rubella is a contagious disease caused by the rubella virus. It is also known as German measles or 3-day measles. However, rubella is not the same as measles.

Rubella is a mild disease that usually causes a rash and swollen glands. However, it's very dangerous for unborn children. If you catch rubella while pregnant, it can cause:

  • a miscarriage
  • stillbirth
  • serious birth defects

The rubella virus is uncommon among Australians because of our successful childhood vaccination program.

What are the symptoms of rubella?

While the best-known symptom of rubella is a pink or red rash, adults commonly get other symptoms first. These can be:

  • sore throat
  • headache
  • conjunctivitis
  • nausea
  • fever
  • generally feeling unwell
  • swollen glands

Swollen glands caused by rubella are usually found:

  • at the back of your neck
  • behind your ears

The rash itself may appear as small dots which form a larger, reddened area. It will usually first appear on your face and then spread to your:

  • neck
  • upper body
  • arms
  • legs

It can last up to 5 days and may or may not be itchy.

Joint pain and arthritis are also common in adults with rubella. The joints most affected are the:

  • fingers
  • wrists
  • knees

Joint symptoms usually start at the same time as the rash appears. These symptoms may persist for weeks.

Symptoms of rubella will generally begin to show about 14 days after infection. However, as many as 1 in 2 people who have the rubella virus do not feel unwell.

CHECK YOUR SYMPTOMS — Use the Symptom Checker and find out if you need to seek medical help.

How is rubella spread?

Rubella is spread through droplets in the air when you cough or sneeze. It can also be spread by person-to person contact.

When you have rubella, you can infect others (be contagious) from 1 week before your rash appears. You remain contagious up until 2 weeks after your rash first appears.

When should I see my doctor?

If you think you might have rubella, it's important to see your doctor.

Be sure to call ahead and let the receptionist know of your concerns. This way, the staff can protect other people in the waiting room.

How can rubella affect my pregnancy?

If you catch rubella during your pregnancy you can transfer the virus to your baby. This may cause congenital rubella syndrome.

Congenital rubella syndrome can cause serious problems for your baby, such as:

  • intellectual disability
  • cataracts (cloudy vision)
  • deafness
  • heart problems

Rubella infection in the first 20 weeks of pregnancy can increase the risk of:

The risk of damage to your baby is lower after 16 weeks of pregnancy.

If you are pregnant and have been in contact with someone with rubella, speak to your doctor or midwife. They will arrange a blood test for you.

How can I protect myself from catching rubella?

The best way to protect yourself from catching rubella is through vaccination.

The rubella vaccine is given as a combined vaccination, either as:

  • measles-mumps-rubella (MMR)
  • measles-mumps-rubella-varicella (MMRV)

However, vaccination during pregnancy is not advised. This is because these vaccines use a live attenuated virus (a weakened form of the virus to help build immunity). There are concerns that if they're given during pregnancy, they may affect the health of your baby.

I'm planning a pregnancy — should I be vaccinated?

If you are planning pregnancy, speak to your doctor about the rubella screening test. This is a simple blood test called the rubella antibody screening. It checks to see if you have rubella antibodies. Rubella antibodies are a type of protein that helps your body fight rubella.

In most cases, previous infection or vaccination will make you immune to rubella, meaning that you can't be infected again.

If you don't have rubella antibodies, you may be offered the vaccine to protect you and any future pregnancies.

If you are vaccinated with the MMR vaccine, you should avoid falling pregnant for at least 28 days.

It's safe to have the MMR vaccine after your baby is born, even if you are breastfeeding.

Resources and support

If you have any questions or concerns about rubella during pregnancy, speak to your doctor.

Find out how babies and children can catch rubella, how to treat your child at home, and when to have them vaccinated.

Speak to a maternal child health nurse

Call Pregnancy, Birth and Baby to speak to a maternal child health nurse on 1800 882 436 or video call. Available 7am to midnight (AET), 7 days a week.

Learn more here about the development and quality assurance of healthdirect content.

Last reviewed: June 2023

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