Although it has largely been eradicated by vaccination, a small number of children still get rubella. It's usually mild, but because of the dangers for pregnant women, it's important to know the signs...
What is it?
Rubella, also known as German measles, is a virus which causes a red/pink rash and general feeling of being unwell. It's not as contagious as measles or chicken pox, but it's passed around in a similar way, via coughs and sneezes.
Cases of it are now rare because children are offered vaccination against it (usually the MMR) – in fact, there were only 12 recorded cases in England and Wales during 2010.
If your child catches rubella, it will take approximately a week for the symptoms to become apparent (during which time they will, unfortunately, be infectious). Initially, they might get a mild fever (around 38°C), along with a headache and possibly swollen lymph nodes (on their neck and behind their ears).
The rash, pinkish-red in colour, usually begins on the face before spreading to other parts of the body and might feel itchy. It will last for approximately three days before beginning to subside.
Rubella is a mild illness and it is not usually dangerous for children, even little ones – but it most certainly is dangerous for unborn babies.
While the majority of women of childbearing age are now immune to rubella (either because they were vaccinated against it during childhood, or because they have had it themselves), if a pregnant woman does contract it during her first trimester, there is a very high chance the baby will suffer from congenital rubella syndrome, or CRS.
CRS is serious. It can lead to miscarriage and stillbirth and, in babies who go full term, it can cause various problems, including deafness, blindness, brain damage and heart problems. As such, it is very important to act responsibly if your child catches rubella, to stop the infection spreading to anyone vulnerable.
What can I do?
There is no treatment for rubella other than rest and the correct dosage of liquid paracetamol or ibuprofen, which will help to reduce the fever and headache. Lots of cool drinks will reduce the risk of dehydration, too. The infection will clear up of its own accord within about a week and your child should be kept at home for at least six days from the day the rash appeared, to avoid passing the illness on.
Although there's nothing you can do to speed up the recovery process, you still need to contact your GP, because rubella is a notifiable disease (meaning the Department of Health records the number of cases).
Your doctor might want to confirm rubella by doing tests, but the advice from the NHS, if you suspect your child has rubella, is to telephone your doctor, rather than going to the surgery. This is because there might well be pregnant women in the waiting room.
If you are pregnant and you have been in close contact (this means being face-to-face, or in the same room for 15 minutes or more) with someone who has rubella, you should contact your GP straight away.
It's unlikely you will have caught it because most people are immune, but occasionally immunity reduces over time and so it is important to have some tests done to make sure.
If you are planning to get pregnant, you can have a test to check that you are immune to rubella – if you do not have sufficient antibodies, you can have the MMR jab before becoming pregnant to offer you protection.
What else could it be?
If your child has a fever and red spots all over their body, including in their mouth and on their scalp, they might have chickenpox. See here for more details.
If your child seemed to have a cold, and developed red spots around their ears and neck, followed by spots elsewhere on their body, they might have measles. See here for more details.