Poliomyelitis (polio) is serious viral infection. At this time, it’s very rare in the Western world because of vaccination programs.

Polio is still a big problem in parts of Africa and Asia.


A certain virus causes polio. You can get polio if you have contact with:

  • Someone else who has it
  • Infected saliva or stool
  • Contaminated water or sewage

The virus enters the body through the mouth and travels into the bowels. It grows and spreads quickly. The virus can also travel through the blood and lymph streams. From there, it can attack and damage parts of the nervous system. This can lead to loss of muscle control and paralysis.

Interaction of Lymph, Blood Vessels, and Intestines

Lymph and vessels in Abdomine
Copyright © Nucleus Medical Media, Inc.

Risk Factors

Your chances of polio are higher if you:

  • Never had the vaccine or finished the series
  • Travel to places where it's still common


Some people may not have symptoms. Others may feel like they have a cold or the flu. This may cause:

  • Headache
  • Fever
  • Sore throat
  • Back or neck pain and stiffness
  • Sore muscles

If the nervous system is affected, it may cause:

  • Muscle weakness
  • Loose or floppy muscles
  • Breathing problems
  • Urinary problems
  • Paralysis—on one or both sides

People with steady muscle weakness may get postpolio syndrome years after their first infection. This may cause further muscle weakness, fatigue, and breathing and swallowing problems.


The doctor will ask about your symptoms, and health and travel history. You may also have:

  • A physical exam
  • Swabs to test your throat or rectum
  • Stool testing
  • Blood tests
  • Lumbar puncture to test the fluid that surrounds the brain and spinal cord


The goal of care is to ease symptoms while your body heals. It will also help lower the chance of serious health problems. Care may involve:

  • Rest during the first phases of illness
  • Medicines to control pain and fever
  • Breathing support with a ventilator
  • Physical therapy to get back or keep up movement and muscle strength


Getting the polio vaccine is the best way to stop the disease. Most adults received this vaccine when they were children. If you’re at high risk for getting polio, you may need a booster vaccine. High risk includes:

  • Traveling to places where polio is common
  • Caring for people with polio
  • Working in labs where the polio virus is handled

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


Healthy Children—American Academy of Pediatrics
World Health Organization


Public Health Agency of Canada


Polio eradication. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention website. Available at: https://www.cdc.gov/polio. Updated December 20, 2017. Accessed May 22, 2018.
Poliomyelitis. EBSCO DynaMed Plus website. Available at: http://www.dynamed.com/topics/dmp~AN~T116045/Poliomyelitis . Updated May 14, 2018. Accessed May 22, 2018.
Poliomyelitis. Merck Manual Professional Version website. Available at: https://www.merckmanuals.com/professional/infectious-diseases/enteroviruses/poliomyelitis. Updated February 2018. Accessed May 22, 2018.
Poliomyelitis (polio). World Health Organization website. Available at:
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Accessed May 22, 2018.
Last reviewed May 2018 by David L. Horn, MD, FACP
Last Updated: 5/22/2018

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