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Poliomyelitis (polio) is viral infection. Currently, it is extremely rare in the Western world because of very effective vaccination programs.

Polio is still a significant problem in parts of Africa and Asia. The infection can lead to paralysis.


Polio is caused by a specific virus. You can get the virus from contact with:

  • An infected person
  • Infected saliva or feces
  • Contaminated water or sewage

The virus enters the body through the mouth and travels to the intestines. There the virus grows and spreads quickly. The virus can also travel through the bloodstream and lymph fluid. It can then attack and destroy areas of the nervous system which leads to a loss of control of muscles and paralysis.

Interaction of Lymph, Blood Vessels, and Intestines

Lymph and vessels in Abdomine

Copyright © Nucleus Medical Media, Inc.

Risk Factors

Factors that may increase your chance of polio include:

  • Never receiving the polio vaccine or not completing the vaccinations
  • Travel to countries where polio occurs (areas of Africa, Middle East, and Asia)

Symptoms can vary. Some may have the virus, but never develop symptoms. Others may simply develop flu-like symptoms that last about a week or so. These symptoms may include:

  • Headache
  • Fever
  • Sore throat
  • Back or neck pain and stiffness
  • Muscle tenderness

If the nervous system is affected, symptoms may include:

  • Muscle weakness
  • Paralysis—usually affects each side to varying amounts or only affects a single side
  • Muscles become flaccid (loose, floppy)
  • Muscles required for breathing may become paralyzed
  • Urinary problems
  • Decades later, previously stable muscle weakness may worsen due to postpolio syndrome

Some people with a polio infection can experience symptoms years after the initial attack. This can include muscle weakness, fatigue, and breathing and swallowing problems.


Your doctor will ask about your symptoms and medical history. A physical exam will be done.

To look for the virus you doctor may order:

  • Body fluid samples such as throat swabs, rectal swabs, or stool samples
  • Lumbar puncture to evaluate cerebrospinal fluid that surrounds the brain and spinal cord

Your doctor may also do blood tests to look for antibodies. Antibodies are signs that you body is aware of and fighting the virus.


Talk with your doctor about the best plan for you. There are no treatments available to get rid of the virus. Treatment will provide support while your body heals. It will also help you avoid complications.

Bed Rest

The doctor may recommend bed rest during the initial phase of the illness.

Fever Control

Medication may be given to lower fever and decrease muscle pain. These may include acetaminophen or nonsteroidal anti-inflammatory drugs (NSAIDs).

Mechanical Ventilation

If the muscles you use to breathe become too weak or paralyzed, a ventilator will take over the work of breathing for you.


The virus can cause a tightening of tissue around a joint. A splint will help relax the joint and keep your joints from becoming too stiff. You may also receive physical therapy to keep your limbs moving and decrease muscle loss.

After your fever passes, exercises and therapy will help you regain mobility. They will also help to improve your muscle strength.


The best way to prevent polio is by completing the vaccine which is started during childhood years.

Most adults have already received this vaccine when they were children. But, if you are at high risk for getting this infection, you may need a booster vaccine. High risk includes:

  • Traveling to areas where polio is present
  • Caring for people with polio
  • Working in labs where poliovirus is handled

The number of doses that you need depends on how many you have had in the past. Talk to your doctor if you are at high risk.


Healthy Children—American Academy of Pediatrics

World Health Organization



March of Dimes Canada


Poliomyelitis (polio). World Health Organization website. Available at: Accessed June 19, 2014.

Polio eradication. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention website. Available at: Updated January 27, 2014. Accessed June 19, 2014.

Poliomyelitis. EBSCO DynaMed Plus website. Available at: Updated April 19, 2016. Accessed September 27, 2016.

Last reviewed May 2016 by David L. Horn, MD

Please be aware that this information is provided to supplement the care provided by your physician. It is neither intended nor implied to be a substitute for professional medical advice. CALL YOUR HEALTHCARE PROVIDER IMMEDIATELY IF YOU THINK YOU MAY HAVE A MEDICAL EMERGENCY. Always seek the advice of your physician or other qualified health provider prior to starting any new treatment or with any questions you may have regarding a medical condition.

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