Polio is an infectious disease caused by a virus. In most people, it is harmless and causes no symptoms. However, it can be very serious causing some people to become paralysed or even die. Poliomyelitis (or 'polio' for short) is defined as the paralytic disease, so only people with the paralytic infection are considered to have the condition.
The virus lives in an infected person's throat and intestines. It is most often spread by contact with the stool of an infected person. You can also get it from droplets if an infected person sneezes or coughs. It can contaminate food and water if people do not wash their hands.
Most people have no symptoms.
Some people who've had polio develop post-polio syndrome (PPS) years later. Symptoms include tiredness, new muscle weakness, and muscle and joint pain. There is no way to prevent or cure PPS.
Fortunately there is a polio vaccine and this has wiped out polio in many countries.
(Introduction adapted from the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention)
Most people infected with polio virus have no symptoms. If you have symptoms, they may include:
- flu-like symptoms,
- stiff neck and back, and
- pain in the limbs.
These symptoms usually last 2 to 5 days then go away on their own.
A smaller proportion of people with poliovirus infection will develop other more serious symptoms that affect the brain and spinal cord:
- Paresthesia (feeling of pins and needles in the legs)
- Meningitis (infection of the covering of the spinal cord and/or brain) occurs in about 1 out of 25 people with poliovirus infection
- Paralysis (can’t move parts of the body) or weakness in the arms, legs, or both, occurs in about 1 out of 200 people with poliovirus infection
- Paralysis is the most severe symptom associated with polio because it can lead to permanent disability and death.
- Between 2 and 10 out of 100 people who have paralysis from poliovirus infection die because the virus affects the muscles that help them breathe.
Images of people who have had polio disease Center of Disease Control
Post-polio syndrome is a complication of polio infection that appears many years afterwards. We do not understand why, but in some people, they develop muscle pain, weakness, or paralysis as adults, 15 to 40 years later.
Read more about post-polio syndrome.
There is no treatment to reverse the paralysis. This is why immunisation with the polio vaccine is so important.
Prevention and polio vaccination
Polio vaccine protects children by triggering their immune system to develop antibodies to fight the polio virus.
Almost all children (99 children out of 100) who get all the recommended doses of vaccine will be protected from polio.
There are two types of vaccine that can prevent polio:
- inactivated poliovirus vaccine (IPV). Used in NZ since 2002, this is the preferred form.
- oral poliovirus vaccine (OPV). Still used in some countries.
Polio Immunisation Advisory Centre NZ
Chapter 16: Poliomyelitis Immunisation Handbook Ministry of Health, 2014
Polio Center of Disease Control
Polio and post-polio syndrome Medline Plus
Some people who have had polio develop symptoms years or decades later as a result of the disease. This is referred to as the late effects of polio (LEoP) or post-polio syndrome. Living with the late effects of polio can be challenging and require a lot of medical help. Here are some tips for managing some of the symptoms:
New muscle weakness can appear in both the muscles affected by the original polio as well as muscles that weren’t affected. Therefore strengthening, stretching and aerobic exercises are recommended. However, exercise should be carefully monitored by a health professional.
Fatigue is a common problem following polio. Keeping active and having physiotherapy can help as well as maintaining a balanced lifestyle. A healthy diet helps increase energy levels and assists with weight management.
Post-polio muscle and joint pain, overuse pain and postural pain is common. Improving posture and supporting weakened muscles with things like braces, mobility devices, special seating and/or tailored physiotherapy can help with pain.
Sleep and breathing assessment
Polio can cause sleep disturbances years later due to things like muscle pain and weakened respiratory muscles, which can cause breathing problems. A consultation with a sleep and respiratory specialist is recommended to help identify the cause of any sleep or breathing problems.
Bladder dysfunction is common in polio survivors due to weakened muscles and restricted mobility. A consultation with a urologist is recommended to understand the underlying cause and possible treatment options.
People who have had polio often feel the cold more. So wearing lots of layers, having a warm environment and using things like heat pads can help.
Swallowing and speech difficulties
Damage to the nerves and muscles involved in swallowing and talking can be a result of polio. Therefore, an evaluation by a specialist is recommended.
Mental and emotional wellbeing
Managing your mental and emotional wellbeing can also help with managing physical symptoms. The onset of symptoms later in life can also trigger memories of the initial period of illness, which can be distressing. Talking to family, friends or a trained counsellor can help.
Your healthcare team
Due to the complexity and variety of symptoms, a large team of specialist healthcare professionals is often required to manage the late effects of Polio. This could include a:
- podiatrist for feet
- speech pathologist
- neurologist for pain
- rehabilitation specialist
- occupational therapist
- orthotist for prosthetics
- respiratory specialist for breathing
- sleep specialist
- massage therapist
- osteopath for musculoskeletal pain
The Late Effects of Polio – Introduction to Clinical Practice Polio Australia Incorporated, 2012