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Polio

What Is Polio?

Polio is an infection caused by a virus, called the poliovirus. It was once very common in the U.S. and feared, because it caused paralysis and could be deadly. After doctors started giving a polio vaccine in the 1950s, the number of cases fell rapidly. No new cases of polio have started in the U.S. since 1979. But it is still a problem in parts of Asia and Africa.

What Are the Signs & Symptoms of Polio?

Most people who get infected with polio (short for poliomyelitis) have no symptoms.

Some people have only mild flu-like symptoms, so they may not even suspect that they have polio. These symptoms can include:

Rarely, the virus affects the brain and spinal cord, causing much more serious symptoms, such as:

  • Meningitis. The polio virus can infect the meninges, which are the membranes around the brain and spinal cord. This causes a severe headache, a stiff neck, and sensitivity to light (when light hurts or bothers the eyes).
  • Muscle weakness or paralysis. The virus can destroy the nerve cells that control muscles. When this happens, the muscles get painful and weaker until they stop working. When a person can't use their muscles, their body becomes floppy and can't move — known as paralysis. This can be life-threatening if it affects the breathing muscles and a person can't breathe.

Is Polio Contagious?

Polio is very contagious. The virus enters the body through the mouth and grows in the throat and intestines. It then spreads to other people via saliva (spit) or feces (poop). People can come into contact with the virus when:

  • They have direct contact with the poop of an infected person, or touch an object contaminated with the poop.
  • An infected person coughs or sneezes on them.
  • They eat foods or drink liquids contaminated with the virus. This can happen if they share food or utensils with an infected person. It also can happen if sewage water contaminates the food or drink.

An infected person can have the virus in their throat for 1–2 weeks, and in their poop for up to 6 weeks or longer. Even someone who has no symptoms can pass the virus to other people.

How Is Polio Treated?

There is no cure for polio, only treatments to manage symptoms. Mild cases usually are treated with plenty of fluids and bed rest.

Someone who has muscle pain or weakness will get medicine to treat the pain, and physical therapy to keep the muscles moving. If breathing muscles are affected, they might need help from a mechanical ventilator (breathing machine). The ventilator moves air in and out of the lungs until the person can do it on their own.

How Long Does Polio Last?

People who have milder polio symptoms usually make a full recovery within 1–2 weeks. People whose symptoms are more severe can be weak or paralyzed for life, and some may die.

After recovery, a few people might develop "post-polio syndrome" as long as 30–40 years after their initial illness. Over time, they develop pain or weakness in their muscles or joints, and might feel very tired.

Can Polio Be Prevented?

Polio is a preventable disease. The best way to protect children is to make sure they get a polio vaccine. The vaccine makes the infection-fighting immune system create antibodies against the virus. The antibodies will fight the virus if it ever enters the body.

Inactivated Poliovirus Vaccine (IPV)

In the U.S., kids get the inactivated poliovirus vaccine (IPV) when they're 2 months, 4 months, 6–18 months, and 4–6 years old. IPV contains an inactive form of the virus, so it can't cause polio.

Oral Polio Vaccine (OPV)

In other parts of the world, kids might also get oral polio vaccine (OPV). This liquid vaccine is cheaper and easier to give to many people. Because it's not an injection, it doesn't have to be given by a trained health care provider.

OPV will be in the saliva (spit) and poop of those who get the vaccine. So it can spread to other people the same way the virus does. If it spreads to someone who isn't vaccinated, it can trigger that person's immune system to create antibodies. They'll be immunized even though they didn't get the vaccine directly.

OPV contains a weak form of the live virus, so very rarely it can cause polio. That's why it is no longer used in the U.S.

What Else Should I Know?

Health groups are working to wipe out polio throughout the world, with much success. But several countries still have polio. If you plan to travel outside the U.S., particularly to Africa and Asia, be sure that you and your kids have gotten all your needed polio vaccinations.

Date reviewed: October 2019