08 Sep 2021

German measles

The medical term for this is rubella: this is a common childhood illness along with measles and mumps which is caused by a virus and results in an itchy skin rash and flu-like symptoms. It is very similar to measles and presents with similar symptoms but for one exception: pregnant women.

Why are German measles dangerous for pregnant women?

German measles is a mild condition in most people except for pregnant women. If she contracts this virus during pregnancy then there is a risk of it passing to the unborn baby, causing birth defects and complications.

These complications include miscarriage.

Birth defects include heart and lung problems, cataracts, deafness and a low birthweight.

Causes of German measles

This infection is caused by the rubella virus which grows and multiplies in the mouth and throat, causing a range of symptoms which include a skin rash, fever and swollen glands.

It is highly contagious and spreads between people via sneezing or coughing. This produces droplets containing the virus which enter the system of another person and once there, spread through the bloodstream. It takes up to a week to travel around your body.

This is the danger for a pregnant woman as a week is enough time for the virus to travel from them to their unborn child. If their baby is born with the rubella virus then they are able to transmit this to others a year or so afterwards.

The virus incubates in your body for around 5 to 7 days. You are highly infectious during this time and can transmit the virus to other people so avoid direct contact with others.

German measles in children

If you are a parent of a child who you think has German measles or you have contracted this yourself then see your GP. It is important that you do this to reduce the risk of complications. Telephone your GP first rather than turning up at the surgery on spec as you will put other patients at risk. This is especially the case with pregnant women who may be sat in the waiting room if you turn up without prior warning and are at risk of catching this virus.

Your GP is required by law to report all cases of German measles to the Health Protection Unit (HPA).

Symptoms of German measles

It takes 2 to 3 weeks before you display any symptoms. These symptoms vary between people but some people will hardly notice that they have this infection. Generally, the symptoms are mild and include:

  • Itchy skin rash which develops over the face, neck and upper body. This lasts for up to 5 days.
  • Swollen glands in the neck, around the ears and the back of the head.
  • Fever
  • Cold or flu-like signs such as a sore throat and a runny nose

These last for up to 10 days.

Complications of German measles

There are risks of complications for pregnant women but they are not the only group at risk. People with a poorly functioning immune system due to HIV/AIDS or cancer treatment are equally vulnerable.

These complications include stiff joints and inflammation of the brain.

Diagnosing German measles

Your GP will examine you or your child (if you are a parent) before confirming a diagnosis. This is then followed by a blood test.

He or she will also report this case to the Health Protection Unit (HPA) which is mandatory.

Treatment for German measles

German measles can be treated at home. Drink plenty of fluids to prevent dehydration, suck soothing throat lozenges and use mentholated tissues for your runny nose. Eat a well balanced diet and get plenty of rest.

Take an over the counter painkiller to relieve a fever and headaches. For children, ask your GP or pharmacist about a suitable painkiller.

Stay away from work (or school) for at least 5 days. Avoid contact with pregnant women during this time.

Prevention of German measles

The number of cases of German measles has fallen thanks to the MMR (measles, mumps rubella) vaccine. This is usually given to infants and young children although it can be prescribed at any age.

This vaccine reduces the risk of congenital rubella syndrome in babies and children which can cause long term developmental problems, diabetes and thyroid conditions.

Concerns have been raised about the MMR vaccine and the risk of autism but there is no evidence to support a link between the two. However, if you are concerned then talk to your GP.

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