Rubella and pregnancy
Rubella, also called German measles, is an infection that causes mild flu-like symptoms and a rash on the skin. Only about half of people infected with rubella have these symptoms. Others have no symptoms and may not even know they’re infected.
Rubella is only harmful to an unborn baby in the womb. If you get infected during pregnancy, rubella can cause serious problems for your baby.
Rubella has been eliminated in the United States because of routine vaccination of children. Vaccination protects a person against rubella for life. Only five cases of rubella were reported in this country between 2001 and 2004. But women who were never vaccinated as children can get infected.
Rubella is common in many other countries. Travelers can bring it into the United States, or you can get it when travelling outside the country.
What are signs and symptoms of rubella?
About half of people with rubella have signs and symptoms, and half don’t. Rubella is usually mild with flu-like symptoms followed by a rash. The rash often lasts about 3 days. Flu-like symptoms include:
- Low-grade fever
- Runny nose
- Red eyes
- Swollen glands
- Muscle or joint pain
What causes rubella?
Rubella is caused by a virus (a tiny organism that can make you sick). It’s very contagious and is spread through the air from an infected person’s cough or sneeze.
What problems can rubella cause during pregnancy?
Rubella can be a serious threat to your pregnancy, especially during the first and second trimesters. Having rubella during pregnancy increases the risk of:
- Congenital rubella syndrome (CRS) – This is a condition that happens when a mother passes rubella to her baby during pregnancy. It may cause a baby to be born with one or more birth defects, including heart problems, microcephaly, vision problems, hearing problems, intellectual disability, bone problems, growth problems, and liver and spleen damage.
- Miscarriage – This is when a baby dies in the womb before 20 weeks of pregnancy.
- Stillbirth – This is when a baby dies in the womb after 20 weeks of pregnancy.
- Premature birth – This is birth that happens too early, before 37 weeks of pregnancy.
Can you pass rubella to your baby during pregnancy?
Yes. The best way to protect your baby is to make sure you’re immune to rubella. Immune means being protected from an infection. If you're immune to an infection, it means you can't get the infection.
Most likely you’re immune to rubella because you were vaccinated as a child or you had the illness during childhood. A blood test can tell whether or not you’re immune to rubella. If you’re thinking about getting pregnant and aren’t sure if you’re immune, talk to your health care provider about getting a blood test.
If you’re not immune to rubella, here’s what you can do to help protect your baby:
During pregnancy. You can be tested at a prenatal visit to make sure you’re immune to rubella. If you’re not immune, the MMR vaccine isn’t recommended during pregnancy. But there are things you can do to help prevent getting infected with rubella:
- Stay away from anyone who has the infection.
- Tell your health care provider right away if you’ve been in contact with someone who has rubella.
After pregnancy. Get the MMR vaccination after you give birth. Being protected from the infection means you can’t pass it to your baby before she gets her own MMR vaccination at about 12 months. It also prevents you from passing rubella to your baby during a future pregnancy.
What are the chances of passing rubella to your baby during pregnancy?
You’re more likely to pass rubella to your baby the earlier you become infected during pregnancy. For example:
- If you get rubella in the first 12 weeks of pregnancy, your baby has about an 8 to 9 in 10 chance (85 percent) of getting infected.
- If you get rubella at 13 to 16 weeks of pregnancy, your baby has about a 1 in 2 chance (50 percent) of being infected.
- If you get rubella at the end or your second trimester or later, your baby has about a 1 in 4 chance (25 percent) of getting infected.
If you have rubella during pregnancy, your baby’s provider carefully monitors your baby after birth to catch any problems early.
Last reviewed: March, 2012