German measles, also known as rubella, is a viral infection that causes a red rash on the body. Aside from the rash, people with German measles usually have a fever and swollen lymph nodes. The infection can spread from person to person through contact with droplets from an infected person’s sneeze or cough. This means that you can get German measles if you touch your mouth, nose, or eyes after touching something that has droplets from an infected person on it. You may also get German measles by sharing food or drinks with someone who’s infected.
German measles is rare in the United States. With the introduction of the rubella vaccine in the late 1960s, the incidence of German measles significantly declined. However, the condition is still common in many other parts of the world. It mainly affects children, more commonly those between 5 and 9 years old, but it can also occur in adults.
German measles is typically a mild infection that goes away within one week, even without treatment. However, it can be a serious condition in pregnant women, as it may cause congenital rubella syndrome in the fetus. Congenital rubella syndrome can disrupt the development of the baby and cause serious birth defects, such as heart abnormalities, deafness, and brain damage. It’s important to get treatment right away if you’re pregnant and suspect you have German measles.
The symptoms of German measles are often so mild that they're difficult to notice. When symptoms do occur, they usually develop within two to three weeks after the initial exposure to the virus. They often last about three to seven days and may include:
- pink or red rash that begins on the face and then spreads downward to the rest of the body
- mild fever, usually under 102°F
- swollen and tender lymph nodes
- runny or stuffy nose
- muscle pain
- inflamed or red eyes
Although these symptoms may not seem serious, you should contact your doctor if you suspect you have German measles. This is especially important if you’re pregnant or believe you may be pregnant.
In rare cases, German measles can lead to ear infections and brain swelling. Call your doctor immediately if you notice any of the following symptoms during or after a German measles infection:
- prolonged headache
- stiff neck
German measles is caused by the rubella virus. This is a highly contagious virus that can spread through close contact or through the air. It may pass from person to person through contact with tiny drops of fluid from the nose and throat when sneezing and coughing. This means that you can get the virus by inhaling the droplets of an infected person or touching an object contaminated with the droplets. German measles can also be transmitted from a pregnant woman to her developing baby through the bloodstream.
People who have German measles are most contagious from the week before the rash appears until about two weeks after the rash goes away. They can spread the virus before they even know that they have it.
German measles is extremely rare in the United States, thanks to vaccines that typically provide lifelong immunity to the rubella virus. Most cases of German measles occur in people who live in countries that don't offer routine immunization against rubella.
The rubella vaccine is usually given to children when they’re between 12 and 15 months old, and then again when they’re between ages 4 and 6. This means that infants and young toddlers who haven’t yet received all vaccines have a greater risk of getting German measles.
To avoid complications during pregnancy, many women who become pregnant are given a blood test to confirm immunity to rubella. It’s important to contact your doctor immediately if you've never received the vaccine and think you might have been exposed to rubella.
German Measles in Pregnant Women
When a woman contracts German measles during pregnancy, the virus can be passed on to her developing baby through her bloodstream. This is called congenital rubella syndrome. Congenital rubella syndrome is a serious health concern, as it can cause miscarriages and stillbirths. It can also cause birth defects in babies who are carried to term, including:
- delayed growth
- intellectual disabilities
- heart defects
- poorly functioning organs
Women of childbearing age should have their immunity to rubella tested before becoming pregnant. If a vaccine is needed, it’s important to get it at least 28 days before trying to conceive.
Since German measles appears similar to other viruses that cause rashes, your doctor will confirm your diagnosis with a blood test. This can check for the presence of different types of rubella antibodies in your blood. Antibodies are proteins that recognize and destroy harmful substances, such as viruses and bacteria. The test results can indicate whether you currently have the virus or are immune to it.
Most cases of German measles are treated at home. Your doctor may tell you to rest in bed and to take acetaminophen (Tylenol), which can help relieve discomfort from fever and aches. They may also recommend that you stay home from work or school to prevent spreading the virus to others.
Pregnant women may be treated with antibodies called hyperimmune globulin that can fight off the virus. This can help reduce your symptoms. However, there’s still a chance that your baby will develop congenital rubella syndrome. Babies who are born with congenital rubella will require treatment from a team of specialists. Talk to your doctor if you’re concerned about passing German measles on to your baby.
For most people, vaccination is a safe and effective way to prevent German measles. The rubella vaccine is typically combined with vaccines for the measles and mumps as well as varicella, the virus that causes chicken pox.
These vaccines are usually given to children who are between 12 and 15 months old. A booster shot will be needed again when children are between ages 4 and 6. Since the vaccines contain small doses of the virus, mild fevers and rashes may occur.
If you don’t know whether you’ve been vaccinated for German measles, it’s important to have your immunity tested, especially if you:
- are a woman of childbearing age and aren’t pregnant
- attend an educational facility
- work in a medical facility or school
- plan to travel to a country that doesn’t offer immunization against rubella
While the rubella vaccine usually isn’t harmful, the virus in the shot could cause adverse reactions in some people. You shouldn’t be vaccinated if you have a weak immune system due to another illness, are pregnant, or plan to become pregnant within the next month.