What is rubella?

Short Answer

Rubella, which is also called German measles, is a disease caused by a virus that is spread through sneezing and coughing. The main symptoms of rubella in children and young adults are a rash and fever that last for two to three days. Symptoms can be more serious, and last longer in adults. Rubella is most dangerous to pregnant women, since the disease can cause birth defects, premature delivery, or a miscarriage. Ninety-five percent of children who get two doses of the rubella vaccine will be protected from the disease.



Symptoms & Incubation

Rubella usually causes the following symptoms in children roughly 16-18 days after they’re infected:

  • Rash that starts on the face and spreads to the rest of the body
  • Low fever (less than 101 degrees Fahrenheit)

These symptoms last two or three days. Before the rash appears, older children and adults may also have swollen glands and symptoms that are similar to a cold. Aching joints occur in many cases, especially among young women. About half of the people who get rubella do not have symptoms.

Rubella is often called “German measles,” but it is not related to measles at all. It got this name because the rash caused by rubella looks like measles, and the disease was first discovered in Germany.

The disease is most contagious when the person has a rash, but it can spread up to seven days before the rash appears. People without symptoms can still spread rubella.


In children, rubella is usually a mild disease. In rare cases, serious problems can occur. These include brain infections and bleeding problems. While the disease is usually not a serious problem for children, they can pass it on to their pregnant mothers, aunts, and caregivers, who may experience miscarriage, premature delivery, or birth defects if infected. Because rubella is so dangerous to women of childbearing age, it’s important that children are vaccinated against rubella to increase community immunity – that is, keeping immunization rates high in order to better protect all members of a family, neighborhood, or town. [link to community immunity question]

How does rubella spread?

Rubella spreads when an infected person coughs or sneezes.

High-risk Populations

Rubella is most dangerous for pregnant women. It can cause miscarriage or birth defects like deafness, intellectual disability, and heart defects. As many as 85 out of 100 babies born to mothers who had rubella in the first three months of pregnancy will have a birth defect.


The MMR vaccine is a shot that includes vaccines for three diseases—measles, mumps, and rubella. The rubella vaccine is also part of a second combination vaccine called MMRV (for measles-mumps-rubella-varicella, or chickenpox).

Safety & Side Effects
The MMR vaccine is very safe, and it is effective at preventing rubella (as well as measles and mumps). Vaccines, like any medicine, can have side effects. Most children who get the MMR vaccine have no side effects. Those that do occur are typically very minor and may include the following:

  • Fever in one out of six people
  • Mild rash in one out of 20 people
  • Swollen glands in the cheeks or neck in very few people
  • Fever high enough to cause a seizure (jerking or staring) occurs in one out of 3,000 people. These seizures do not cause any long-term harm.
  • Temporary joint pain and stiffness (mostly in teens and adults)

Serious allergic reaction to the MMR vaccine occurs in fewer than one in a million people.

The vaccine does not cause autism. There are a couple of reasons why people believe autism is linked to vaccination. The first is because sometimes signs of autism don’t appear until around the age the MMR vaccine is given. If a child is diagnosed shortly after getting vaccinations, this may seem like cause and effect.

Another reason some people think MMR is linked to autism is because of a study published in 1998 in the United Kingdom journal The Lancet. One of the authors claimed that the MMR vaccine could contribute to the development of autism. The publishers later retracted the article when they discovered it was false, and 10 out of 13 of the study’s authors have withdrawn their support of the study. Since then, 12 large-scale studies have produced no evidence that children who receive the MMR vaccine are at greater risk of autism than those who don’t.


Children need two doses of the MMR vaccine at the following ages for best protection:

  • The first dose at 12 through 15 months; and
  • The second dose at 4 through 6 years of age.


They can get MMR at the same time as other vaccines.

Since the Vaccine Was Introduced…

Before the MMR vaccine, more than 50,000 people in the U.S. got rubella each year. After the vaccine, the number of cases dropped greatly, to fewer than 1,000.

Rubella is no longer circulating naturally in the U.S., but it is found in other countries, and people with rubella can travel to the U.S. anytime. Thus, rubella outbreaks still occur among groups of people who are not vaccinated.