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Rubella in babies and children

6-minute read

Key facts

  • Rubella is a contagious disease that commonly causes a rash.
  • Rubella is spread through person-to-person contact and by breathing in droplets caused by coughing and sneezing.
  • Immunisation will stop most children from getting rubella.

What is rubella?

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

Rubella is caused by the rubella virus. It is uncommon among Australian children because of our effective vaccination program.

Rubella is a mild disease that is not usually dangerous for children. But, it can be very dangerous for pregnant women. This is because rubella can cause miscarriage or anomalies (serious differences) in unborn babies.

What are the symptoms of rubella?

In young children, the first sign of rubella is a pink or red rash. This usually begins on their face and spreads down the body.

The rash may appear in the form of many small dots which together form a larger, reddened area. Sometimes the rash is itchy and can last for 3 to 4 days.

Other symptoms of rubella are:

  • a slight fever
  • sore throat and a runny nose
  • generally feeling unwell
  • swollen glands (especially at the back of a child's neck and behind their ears)

Symptoms generally begin to show about 14 days after a child has been infected with rubella.

How do babies and children catch rubella?

Rubella spreads through:

  • person-to person contact
  • exposure to the droplets released when an infected person coughs or sneezes

A child with rubella can infect others from 1 week before their rash appears. They remain contagious up until 2 weeks after the rash appears.

How can I prevent the spread of rubella?

If your child has rubella, do not send them to childcare, kindergarten or school where they could infect others.

Make sure that you and your family are observing good hygiene practices, including washing hands both properly and frequently.

Try and teach your child the importance of sneezing and coughing into their elbow. This helps prevent the spread of the rubella virus, and other illnesses.

It's especially important to keep your child away from pregnant woman. This is because the virus can be very dangerous for their unborn baby.

What if I think my child has rubella?

If you think your child may have rubella, you should call your doctor straight away.

Do not go straight to the clinic — you don't want to infect people in the waiting room.

Call your doctor first. They will let you know the safest way to see them.

How is rubella diagnosed?

Your doctor may be able to diagnose rubella from your child's symptoms and history of possible exposure to rubella.

They may confirm the diagnosis with a blood test.

Rubella is a notifiable disease. This means that if your child has rubella, your doctor will notify your local public health unit. They may ask to talk with you to try and find out:

  • where your child caught rubella
  • who your child has spent time with (contact tracing)

This helps limit the spread of rubella and protects your community.

How do I care for my child with rubella?

There's no specific treatment for rubella and the disease is usually very mild.

If you feel that your child is unwell:

  • give them lots of fluids
  • allow them to rest

How can I protect my child from getting rubella?

The best way to stop your child from catching rubella is through vaccination.

The rubella vaccine is given in 2 doses. This should happen at:

  1. 12 months of age — as part of the 'measles, mumps, rubella vaccine' vaccine (MMR)
  2. 18 months of age — as part of the measles-mumps-rubella-varicella vaccine (MMRV)

Under the National Immunisation Program (NIP), these vaccinations are free.

However, if your child has not had these vaccinations at the recommended age, speak with your childhood nurse or doctor.

Vaccinating your child can also protect those around you. This includes other family members who are too young or too sick to be vaccinated. The more people in a community who receive the rubella vaccination, the more protected your community is against the virus.

What complications can happen with rubella?

Rubella is usually a mild illness. However, if a pregnant woman catches rubella during her first 12 weeks of pregnancy, it can cause congenital rubella syndrome.

Resources and support

If you have any questions or concerns about about rubella, speak to your doctor or child health nurse.

Learn more about how rubella during pregnancy, can affect you and your baby.

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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