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.
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.
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.
Polio can cause a variety of symptoms. Depending on the severity of the case, these can include:
Pain in the arms and legs
Difficulty breathing, swallowing, or speaking
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.
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.
Being vaccinated against polio offers protection from the disease. Children should receive a series of vaccines starting in infancy. Infants, children, and adults traveling to countries where polio is still active, and staying for more than 4 weeks, should get age-appropriate polio vaccines or a polio booster within 12 months before travel.
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.
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.