What is rubella?

Rubella is an acute viral infection. It can cause a rash over your child’s body, fever, and swelling of the lymph nodes. It is also known as “German measles.”

Rubella is usually a mild illness, but it can cause severe birth defects if a pregnant woman is infected. It is rarely diagnosed in Canada because most people are immunized.

Child with rubella rash on torsoChild with rubella rash on torso 
The name "rubella" comes from the Latin for "little red". Rubella is also sometimes called "German measles".

Signs and symptoms of rubella

Rubella is a mild infection in infants and children. Many children do not show any symptoms at all. The infection can be more severe in teenagers and adults. Signs and symptoms may not show until 2 or 3 weeks after the infection is in the body.

Some of the signs and symptoms of rubella include:

  • slight fever
  • swollen lymph nodes at the back of the neck and behind the ears
  • a non-itchy rash that first appears on the face and spreads to the body and limbs
  • the rash consists of tiny, flat pink spots that become paler when pressed
  • the rash usually appears after a few days of fever and feeling unwell
  • joint pain are common in adolescent and adult women
  • joint pain usually occurs after the rash and may last for a few weeks

Not all cases of this condition look the same and many conditions can look similar. For information about your child’s illness, please speak to your child’s doctor.

Causes of rubella

The rubella virus is spread through the air by infectious droplets when an infected person coughs, sneezes, or touches a surface. Your child may contract the virus by inhaling or touching these droplets then touching his face, mouth, eyes, or ears.

The Rubella Virus
Microscopic view of rubella virusMicroscopic view of rubella virus 
Under a microscope, the rubella virus particles look like small spheres.

Risk factors

Your child is more likely to contract the illness if:

  • your child has not had the MMR vaccination
  • your child has made international travel without being vaccinated


The most serious complication of rubella occurs when a pregnant woman catches the infection in the first 4 months of pregnancy. An infected mother can pass the infection to the growing fetus. This can cause miscarriage. Rubella can also damage the developing brain, eyes, ears, heart, or other organs. This condition is called congenital rubella syndrome.

Arthritis in the knees, wrists and fingers, is common in teenage and adult women. Rarely, rubella can cause low platelet counts, which can result in bleeding. Encephalitis (inflammation of the brain) is another rare complication.

When to seek medical assistance

If you think your child may have rubella, call your doctor’s office immediately. Do not go to the doctor’s office right away. There is a risk your child could infect a pregnant woman while in public.

A doctor will examine your child and order a blood test to confirm the diagnosis.

Taking care of your child at home

There is no specific treatment for rubella. You can help your child by trying to make him comfortable. Usually children recover completely from rubella within 10 days of the onset of symptoms. Acetaminophen or ibuprophen​ can be given for fever.


Rubella can be prevented by immunization with the Measles-Mumps-Rubella (MMR) vaccine. In Canada, two MMR vaccines are routinely recommended at 12 and 18 months.

Key points

  • Rubella is a viral illness with no specific treatment.
  • Rubella is dangerous for pregnant women because it can cause serious birth defects.
  • Rubella can be prevented with immunization.

Sheila Jacobson, MBBCh, FRCPC