Measles vs. German Measles: What's the Difference?

Measles, also called rubeola, can be difficult to differentiate from German Measles, also known as rubella. Although both are viruses that result in similar symptoms, there are slight differences that are key to diagnosis, recovery, and knowing what complications to expect. Although measles is still relatively common in the United States, German Measles is very rare. Both are most dangerous to children under the age of one, who are not yet old enough to vaccinated for either with the MMR shot (measles, mumps, and rubella). 


Both viruses are spread through contact with the spit or mucus from an infected person’s cough or sneeze. However, Rubeola can last for several hours on surfaces outside the human body. 


Regular measles are a respiratory virus. They may cause coughing, a sore throat, inflamed and light-sensitive eyes (conjunctivitis), a high fever (104-105 degrees fahrenheit), bluish-white spots in the mouth (Koplik’s Spots), a runny nose, sore muscles, and a tell-tale rash that begins at the head as itchy bumps or blotchy spots and spreads down the body. Symptoms begin appearing two weeks after contact, and within a few days, the rash develops. Four days before and after the initial development of the rash is the most contagious time for the patient. The illness lasts two to three weeks. 

German measles, on the other hand, only last for two or three days. The patient may develop a lower fever (less than 102 degrees), a headache, swollen lymph nodes, and a pink rash that also starts at the head and works its down. Other symptoms, like conjunctivitis, sore muscles, and runny nose, are quite similar. It is most contagious when patients have the rash, but can be up to seven days before the rash develops. Even when no symptoms are present, the infected person may be contagious. 


The complications from the two types of measles are also relatively different. Measles can result in potentially life-threatening encephalitis (an inflammation of the brain), or pneumonia, along with ear infections. Additionally, the associated cough can turn into bronchitis or croup.

German measles can also cause brain swelling and ear infections, as well. Other than that, expected complication include a lingering ear, neck, or headache, for which medical care should be sought. 


There is no real cure or specific treatment for rubeola or rubella. The viruses must simply run their course, with precautions taken to keep the infected person away from others who are at risk of also catching it. Treating the fever as well as muscle and joint aches with a nonsteroidal anti-inflammatory drug, like aspirin or acetaminophen, is generally recommended by doctors. The use of a humidifier may help ease the cold-like symptoms. Additional infections, specifically bacterial ear infections, can be dealt with using a round of antibiotics. Plenty of bedrest and fluids are also best for the patient, as it allows the body time to recover, without trying to spend energy doing other things, putting the focus solely on getting better.