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Patient education: Poliomyelitis (The Basics)

Patient education: Poliomyelitis (The Basics)

What is poliomyelitis? — Poliomyelitis (commonly called "polio") is an infection caused by a virus called "poliovirus." Most people who get polio have no symptoms. But in rare cases, polio can cause a person's muscles to stop working (called "paralysis") or can cause death.

Polio used to be common in the US. No cases have started in the US since 1979. But cases have sometimes been brought to the US by people who have traveled to other places. In the mid-1950s, doctors started giving a vaccine to prevent polio. It is one of the vaccines that doctors recommend for all babies.

Polio is a still a problem in some parts of Asia and Africa. People who travel from those areas to the US might have the virus and could spread it to people who have not had the vaccine.

What are the symptoms of polio? — Most people with polio have no symptoms. A small number of people get symptoms that can include:

Headache

Sore throat

Fever

Nausea and vomiting

Feeling very tired

Stiff neck

A small number of people who have polio also get more serious symptoms. These include weakness or paralysis that gets worse for a few days. The weakness can affect the muscles of the legs and arms, and even the muscles that help you breathe and swallow. The legs are affected more often than the arms. Some people get severe weakness that leads to trouble walking, breathing, or swallowing.

People who are paralyzed from polio can have long-lasting problems. Many people who get muscle weakness do not regain full strength, although some do.

Many years later, some people who were paralyzed from polio can get a condition called "post-polio syndrome." Symptoms include:

New or worse muscle weakness

Feeling very tired

Pain

How does polio spread? — Poliovirus is most commonly spread by contact with the bowel movements (called "feces") of a person infected with poliovirus. This can happen different ways, including:

Eating foods or drinking liquids that have poliovirus in them – This can happen if the food or water comes in contact with sewage water.

Touching surfaces or things that have feces from a person with the virus on them

Poliovirus can also be spread through saliva (spit). That means that people can also get polio by sharing food or utensils with an infected person.

Is there a test for polio? — Yes. Testing for polio involves:

Taking a swab of the inside of the mouth

Getting a sample of a person's bowel movement (called a "stool sample")

Lumbar puncture (sometimes called a "spinal tap") – During a lumbar puncture, a doctor puts a thin needle into the lower back and removes a small amount of spinal fluid. This is the fluid that surrounds the brain and spinal cord.

After these samples are collected, another doctor does lab tests on them to check for poliovirus.

How is polio treated? — Treatments can include:

Medicines to ease pain

Physical therapy

Mechanical ventilation – This involves using a machine to help with breathing.

Can polio be prevented? — Getting the polio vaccine can prevent polio. This vaccine is given to babies in a series of 4 shots between the ages of 2 months and 6 years.

Most adults living in the US today got the vaccine during childhood. But adults who are traveling to countries where polio is still a problem should get a second series of the vaccine (called a polio "booster") for extra protection. The CDC has information about travel at this website: wwwnc.cdc.gov/travel/notices.

More on this topic

Patient education: What you should know about vaccines (The Basics)
Patient education: Vaccines for babies and children age 0 to 6 years (The Basics)
Patient education: Vaccines for travel (The Basics)
Patient education: Staying healthy when you travel (The Basics)
Patient education: Acute flaccid myelitis (The Basics)
Patient education: Weakness (The Basics)

Patient education: Why does my child need vaccines? (Beyond the Basics)
Patient education: Vaccines for adults (Beyond the Basics)
Patient education: Vaccines for infants and children age 0 to 6 years (Beyond the Basics)

This topic retrieved from UpToDate on: Jun 02, 2024.
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