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Poliomyelitis

Previous generations of Americans had reason to fear poliomyelitis, most often called polio. The disease, which is spread by a virus, can leave people paralyzed. The disease is now rare in the U.S. because of a vaccine against the virus.

The only countries where polio continues as an ongoing problem are India, Pakistan, Afghanistan, and Nigeria. Some people do get it while traveling to a region where the disease still occurs.

Facts about disease

The disease is spread through the feces or mucus of people infected with the virus. In about one in 200 cases, people who have polio become paralyzed. The paralysis usually affects the legs, and it is permanent. Polio usually affects children under age 5. The disease is more common in the summer and the fall.

Types of disease

Polio can take several different forms:

Inapparent polio. Most cases are this type. When people have this form, they don't have symptoms. But they can still pass the virus on to other people.

  • Cases with mild symptoms. People with this form may have a mild illness with symptoms similar to those from the flu. But the illness doesn't appear to affect the brain. People with this form usually recover within a week.

  • Paralytic polio. This type includes weakness that develops quickly and turns into paralysis.

Symptoms

Polio can cause a variety of symptoms. Depending on the severity of the case, these can include:

  • Fever

  • Fatigue

  • Vomiting

  • Headache

  • Neck stiffness

  • Pain in the arms and legs

  • Weakness

  • Paralysis

  • Difficulty breathing, swallowing, or speaking

Diagnosis

A doctor may diagnose polio by checking your stool or throat for poliovirus. The doctor may also want to do a spinal tap to get a sample of your spinal fluid to examine.

Treatment

Polio cannot be cured. Doctors focus on treating symptoms. They may also provide medicine, including pain medicine, and suggest bed rest. People with polio who can't breathe on their own will need a machine to help them breathe.

Prevention

Being vaccinated against polio offers protection from the disease. Children should receive a series of vaccines starting in infancy. If you're an adult going to a country where cases are still occurring, you may need to be vaccinated. Adults can have a three-dose series of vaccines. This may be needed in people who haven't been fully vaccinated or don't know if they have been.

People with certain immune problems can catch the disease from a child who has recently been vaccinated with oral polio vaccine. This type of vaccine is no longer used in the U.S.

Managing polio

Many people who have had polio develop a condition called post-polio syndrome decades later. Symptoms can include new muscle weakness and fatigue. Some people may have muscle shrinkage. Most people who didn't have severe symptoms from polio don't have severe symptoms from this problem. If you have this condition, exercise and stretching may help you feel better. 

Last Reviewed Date: 06/10/2012
© 2000-2014 Krames StayWell, 780 Township Line Road, Yardley, PA 19067. All rights reserved. This information is not intended as a substitute for professional medical care. Always follow your healthcare professional's instructions.
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