Polio is a contagious viral illness that in its most severe form causes paralysis, difficulty breathing and sometimes death.
In the U.S., the last case of naturally occurring polio happened in 1979. Today, despite a concerted global eradication campaign, poliovirus continues to affect children and adults in Afghanistan, India, Nigeria and Pakistan.
The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) advises taking precautions to protect against polio if you're traveling anywhere there's a risk of polio. If you're a previously vaccinated adult who plans to travel to an area where polio is occurring, you should receive a booster dose of inactivated poliovirus (IPV). Immunity following a booster dose lasts a lifetime.
Although polio can cause paralysis and death, the vast majority of people who are infected with the poliovirus don't become sick and are never aware they've been infected with polio.
Signs and symptoms, which generally last one to 10 days, include:
Initial signs and symptoms of paralytic polio, such as fever and headache, often mimic those of nonparalytic polio. Within a week, however, signs and symptoms specific to paralytic polio appear, including:
The onset of paralysis may be sudden.
When to see a doctor
Additionally, call your doctor if:
Nerve cell (neuron)
Each nerve cell (neuron) consists of four basic components: a neuron cell body, a nucleus, a major branching fiber (axon) and numerous smaller branching fibers (dendrites). Nerve cells communicate ...
The poliovirus resides only in humans and enters the environment in the feces of someone who's infected. Poliovirus spreads primarily through the fecal-oral route, especially in areas where sanitation is inadequate.
Poliovirus can be transmitted through contaminated water and food or through direct contact with someone infected with the virus. Polio is so contagious that anyone living with a recently infected person is likely to become infected, too. People carrying the poliovirus can spread the virus for weeks in their feces.
You're at greatest risk of polio if you haven't been immunized against the disease. In areas with poor sanitation and sporadic or nonexistent immunization programs, the most vulnerable members of the population — pregnant women, the very young and those with weakened immune systems — are especially susceptible to poliovirus.
These factors also increase your risk if you haven't been vaccinated:
Paralytic polio can lead to temporary or permanent muscle paralysis, disability, and deformities of the hips, ankles and feet. Although many deformities can be corrected with surgery and physical therapy, these treatments may not be options in developing nations where polio is still endemic. As a result, children who survive polio may spend their lives with severe disabilities.
Preparing for your appointment
Call your doctor if you've recently returned from travel abroad and develop symptoms similar to those that occur with polio.
Here's some information to help you get ready, and what to expect from your doctor.
Information to gather in advance
For polio, some basic questions to ask your doctor include:
Don't hesitate to ask any additional questions that occur to you during your appointment.
What to expect from your doctor
Tests and diagnosis
Doctors often recognize polio by symptoms, such as neck and back stiffness, abnormal reflexes, and difficulty swallowing and breathing. To confirm the diagnosis, a sample of throat secretions, stool or cerebrospinal fluid — a colorless fluid that surrounds your brain and spinal cord — is checked for the presence of poliovirus.
Treatments and drugs
Because no cure for polio exists, the focus is on increasing comfort, speeding recovery and preventing complications. Supportive treatments include:
Although improved public sanitation and careful personal hygiene may help reduce the spread of polio, the most effective way to prevent the disease is with polio vaccine.
IPV is 90 percent effective after two shots and 99 percent effective after three. It can't cause polio and is safe for people with weakened immune systems, although it's not certain just how protective the vaccine may be in cases of severe immune deficiency. Common side effects are pain and redness at the injection site.
Allergic reaction to the vaccine
Signs and symptoms of an allergic reaction usually occur within minutes to a few hours after the shot and may include:
If you or your child experiences an allergic reaction after any shot, get medical help immediately.
Fewer shots for your child
A combination vaccine called Pediarix is available that reduces the number of injections given during the first two years of life. Pediarix combines DTaP, hepatitis B and polio into a single vaccine. Side effects of Pediarix are similar to those of the individual vaccines administered separately, though fever is more likely to occur in children who receive Pediarix than in children who receive vaccines separately.
If you're unvaccinated or your vaccination status is undocumented, you should receive a series of primary polio vaccination shots — two doses of IPV at four- to eight-week intervals and a third dose six to 12 months after the second dose.
Last Updated: 2011-03-05
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