Rubella is a viral infection also known as measles. The infection is contagious and people can pass on the infection through mucus or saliva. Rubella can occur in almost anyone, but it’s particularly dangerous for pregnant people and their unborn babies.

While coughing or sneezing is the primary mode of transmission, pregnant people with rubella can also pass the infection on to their babies through bodily fluids.

A rubella infection that a pregnant person passes to their baby during pregnancy is called congenital rubella syndrome (CRS).

In this article, we explore the risks for both a pregnant person and baby, and how you can treat and prevent rubella.

CRS can increase a pregnant person’s chance of having a miscarriage. Babies who are born from people with rubella can have an even greater chance of stillbirth or experiencing developmental complications.

This viral infection in the pregnant person can affect nearly every system in a developing baby, causing developmental complications like:

Less common — but more severe — complications include:

  • glaucoma
  • brain injury
  • thyroid problems
  • hormone dysfunction
  • inflammation of the lungs

About 25 to 50 percent of adults don’t notice any symptoms of a rubella infection. Experts considered rubella eliminated from the United States in 2004. There are now less than 10 cases of rubella reported in the United States each year.

When symptoms do develop in adults, they can include mild ones like:

  • a low-grade fever
  • headache
  • pink eye
  • general discomfort
  • a rash that starts on the face and spreads to the rest of the body
  • sore throat

Progress toward worldwide elimination of rubella

Worldwide, the rubella infection is a leading cause of developmental issues for a fetus, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC). In 2012, experts created a rubella vaccine (RCV) in an effort to eliminate transmission of the infection in under-resourced countries.

According to the CDC, by 2020, 173 of 194 high-risk countries introduced the RCV vaccine, and 94 of those countries eliminated rubella transmission. People need further progress to achieve complete elimination, but the trend appears encouraging.

There’s currently no cure for a rubella infection, but for most adults, symptoms are mild and pass in a matter of days. For pregnant people, though, the condition may impact a developing infant even after a mild illness passes.

Treatment for adults

Treatment for rubella usually focuses on managing symptoms and promoting comfort. This might include rest, fluids, or medications like acetaminophen (Tylenol) to manage pain or fever.

In severe cases, treatment may also include medical interventions like immune support, blood transfusion(s), or steroid prescriptions.

Treatment for developing babies

There’s currently no treatment for developing babies exposed to the infection during pregnancy. Living with the rubella infection while pregnant can create health concerns for an infant following delivery, which may last the rest of their lives.

Rubella infections carry different risks at different stages of pregnancy.

  • Before 12 weeks, you can have an 85 percent chance of passing the infection to your baby.
  • In the second trimester, your can baby have a 50 percent chance of getting the infection.
  • In the last trimester, the chances of transmitting the infection to your baby can be about 25 percent.

Often, the most effective way to prevent a rubella infection in pregnancy can be to get a vaccine before you become pregnant.

Healthcare professionals often give people the measles, mumps, rubella (MMR) vaccine in 2 doses during childhood, but some people may need additional doses later in adulthood.

If you haven’t received the vaccine or are unsure, your doctor can check your blood for antibodies to rubella before you become pregnant. If you do not have protection against rubella, you can get a vaccine, but plan to wait about a month after your vaccine to try and become pregnant.

At this time, it’s important for pregnant people not to receive the MMR vaccine because it is an attenuated live virus vaccine. If you don’t receive the vaccine before you become pregnant, you will have to wait until after you deliver your baby to get a vaccine.

Many obstetricians and gynecologists perform testing for rubella and other infections at some point during your first trimester. If you become exposed to someone with the virus after getting tested or at any point during your pregnancy, contact your doctor immediately.

Consider making sure the children in your household also receive vaccines

To decrease the chance of exposure to rubella, children in your household should also receive vaccinations for rubella. For more information, talk with your child’s pediatrician. You can also refer to CDC vaccine recommendations for children and adults.

What should you do if you get rubella while pregnant?

If you get rubella while pregnant, talk with your doctor about monitoring and managing your symptoms. Vaccination before pregnancy can typically be the most effective way to prevent developmental issues for a fetus due to a rubella infection.

What developmental complications can rubella cause?

Rubella can cause miscarriage and stillbirth, as well as developmental issues for a fetus like vision, hearing, and mental retardation. In severe cases, your baby could develop a brain injury or more severe disabilities.

When should I get the rubella vaccine, and how long does it last?

Many healthcare professionals recommend the MMR vaccine as part of the childhood vaccination schedule in the United States. The MMR vaccine typically lasts a lifetime. There are some cases when a doctor might recommend a third dose, but ask your doctor about your specific needs. Try not to get pregnant until about a month after your MMR vaccination.

Who should not get the MMR vaccine?

The MMR vaccine is usually safe for many individuals, but it’s important for pregnant people and people with certain health conditions not to receive live vaccines. If possible, before you plan to become pregnant, talk with your doctor about vaccinations based on your health needs.

Rubella is a viral infection that commonly causes mild illness in adults, but can lead to severe health concerns in pregnancy and developmental issues for a fetus.

Consider talking with your doctor about your vaccination status before becoming pregnant to prevent serious health effects from a rubella infection for you and your baby.