Rubella is a viral infection also known as measles. The infection is contagious and people can pass the infection on through mucus or saliva. Rubella can occur in almost anyone, but it is especially dangerous for pregnant women and their unborn babies.
Although coughing or sneezing is the main mode of transmission, pregnant women with rubella can also transmit the infection to their babies through bodily fluids.
A rubella infection that a pregnant person passes on to their baby during pregnancy is called congenital rubella syndrome (CRS).
In this article, we explore the risks for a pregnant person and a baby, and how you can treat and prevent rubella.
CRS can increase a pregnant person’s risk of miscarriage. Babies born to people with rubella may have an even greater risk of stillbirth or developmental complications.
This viral infection in pregnant women can affect nearly every system in a developing baby, causing developmental complications such as:
Less common, but more serious complications include:
- cerebral lesion – brain-damage
- thyroid problems
- hormonal dysfunction
- inflammation of the lungs
About 25-50% of adults do not notice any symptoms of rubella infection. Experts considered rubella eliminated from the United States in 2004. There are now less than 10 cases rubella reported in the United States each year.
When symptoms develop in adults, they may include mild symptoms such as:
- a mild fever
- pink eye
- general discomfort
- a rash that starts on the face and spreads to the rest of the body
- sore throat
There is currently no cure for rubella infection, but for most adults symptoms are mild and resolve within a few days. For pregnant women, however, the condition can impact a developing infant even after death from mild illness.
Treatment for adults
Rubella treatment typically focuses on managing symptoms and promoting comfort. This may include rest, fluids, or medications like acetaminophen (Tylenol) to manage pain or fever.
In severe cases, treatment may also include medical interventions such as immune support, blood transfusions, or steroid prescriptions.
Treatment for developing babies
There is currently no treatment for developing babies exposed to infection during pregnancy. Living with rubella during pregnancy can create health problems for an infant after delivery that can last the rest of their life.
Rubella infections carry different risks at different stages of pregnancy.
- Before 12 weeks, you may have a 85% chance transmit the infection to your baby.
- In the second trimester, your baby may have a 50% chance to contract the infection.
- During the last trimester, the chances of transmitting the infection to your baby can be about 25 percent.
Often the most effective way to prevent rubella infection during pregnancy is to get vaccinated before you get pregnant.
Healthcare professionals often give people the measles, mumps, and rubella (MMR) vaccine in 2 doses during childhood, but some people may need additional doses later in adulthood.
If you haven’t had the vaccine or are unsure, your doctor can check your blood for rubella antibodies before you get pregnant. If you don’t have protection against rubella, you can get vaccinated, but plan to wait about a month after your vaccination to try to get pregnant.
At present, it is important that pregnant women do not receive the MMR vaccine, as it is a live attenuated virus vaccine. If you don’t get the vaccine before you get pregnant, you’ll have to wait until after your baby is delivered to get vaccinated.
Many obstetricians and gynecologists test for rubella and other infections at some point during your first trimester. If you are exposed to someone with the virus after being tested or at any time during your pregnancy, contact your doctor immediately.
What should you do if you catch rubella during pregnancy?
If you get rubella during pregnancy, talk with your doctor about monitoring and managing your symptoms. Vaccination before pregnancy can usually be the most effective way to prevent fetal development problems due to rubella infection.
What developmental complications can rubella cause?
Rubella can cause miscarriage and stillbirth, as well as developmental problems for a fetus such as vision, hearing and mental retardation. In severe cases, your baby could develop brain damage 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 immunization schedule in the United States. The MMR vaccine usually lasts a lifetime. In some cases, a doctor may 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 generally safe for many people, but it is important that pregnant women and people with certain health conditions do not receive live vaccines. If possible, before planning a pregnancy, talk to your doctor about vaccinations based on your health needs.
Rubella is a viral infection that usually causes mild illness in adults, but can lead to serious health problems during pregnancy and developmental problems for a fetus.
Consider talking to your doctor about your vaccination status before you get pregnant to prevent serious health effects of a rubella infection for you and your baby.