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What is Rubella?

Mary McMahon
Updated May 17, 2024
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Rubella is an infectious, but mild viral disease characterized by an eruptive rash which starts on the face and spreads along the rest of the body. In most cases, the disease is relatively harmless, with all symptoms disappearing after a week or so, leaving the patient with a life long immunity. However, in pregnant women, the disease can cause severe birth defects or miscarriage if contracted in the first trimester.

The disease is caused by the spread of discharge from the nose and throat of an infected patient. This discharge carries a load of rubivirus, the viral agent responsible for infection. Symptoms may not emerge for up to one month, as the virus breeds in the body. The rash is usually the first sign, and the patient may also experience a fever and some joint pain. Within three days, the rash is gone, leading some people to refer to the disease as “the three day measles.” In some cases, patients experience lingering joint pain as a result of rubella infection.

The word “rubella” is derived from the Latin word for “red,” a reference to the distinctive rash which accompanies the infection. It may also be called German measles, and it has traditionally been associated with childhood, since most patients acquired the infection as youths, allowing them to resist it as adults. Adults without immunity would, of course, experience full blown symptoms of rubella if they were exposed it, but these symptoms would not usually be dangerous.

Fortunately, a vaccine for rubella was developed in 1969, and children are routinely vaccinated for it in most first world countries. Women who are considering pregnancy may want to consider asking their doctors about taking a titer to ensure they have a healthy population of antibodies to the disease. Since the condition is highly contagious, travelers may be at risk when they visit nations with less stringent vaccination policies, and boosters may be recommended in this case.

In the rare event that someone contracts rubella, the disease is usually allowed to run its course. Medical professionals may ask the patient to stay at home, so he or she does not expose others, especially pregnant women, to the disease. In some cases, aspirin may be given to combat the joint pain; otherwise, no treatment is given other than a recommendation to keep well hydrated and warm. If the fever associated with the condition becomes severe, more serious action may need to be taken to keep the patient healthy.

WiseGeek is dedicated to providing accurate and trustworthy information. We carefully select reputable sources and employ a rigorous fact-checking process to maintain the highest standards. To learn more about our commitment to accuracy, read our editorial process.
Mary McMahon
By Mary McMahon

Ever since she began contributing to the site several years ago, Mary has embraced the exciting challenge of being a WiseGeek researcher and writer. Mary has a liberal arts degree from Goddard College and spends her free time reading, cooking, and exploring the great outdoors.

Discussion Comments
By anon946293 — On Apr 18, 2014

It is not very dangerous in our day and age because of the vaccine, but if everyone had it and an expectant mother with a lower immune system was exposed to a lot of people with the infection, we would have a lot more infants with deformities.

By anon206020 — On Aug 15, 2011

thanks for answering my my question.

By elizabeth2 — On Feb 01, 2011

If rubella is generally not a very dangerous disease, why is a rubella vaccination used? Maybe there is a chance that the vaccination is more dangerous than the disease.

Although, I guess that's pretty easy for me to say, never having had rubella, myself. I suppose if I had to suffer the symptoms, I would understand why a vaccine for it would be desirable.

By Catapult — On Jan 28, 2011

I am glad I got an MMR vaccine- also known as measles, mumps, and rubella- when I was younger. While I know you can get over these illnesses fairly easily most of the time, I am glad I do not have to take my chances. I don't believe that everyone needs vaccinations for everything, but I think for things like this, where the vaccine has shown its worth over the years, it can be a very good idea.

Mary McMahon
Mary McMahon

Ever since she began contributing to the site several years ago, Mary has embraced the exciting challenge of being a...

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