Polio or poliomyelitis is a very contagious viral disease that can cause permanent paralysis and can be fatal. Because vaccines against polio are now widely available, polio should be strongly suspected in any patient below 15 years old with rapid onset of paralysis, with no identifiable cause, and with no history of vaccination.
Last Updated: February 21, 2024

Polio is caused by the poliovirus, which lives in people's throats and intestines. It is transmitted person-to-person via the feco-oral route. This means that it is transmitted when the feces of infected individuals (e.g. in unhygienically prepared food, or dirty toys) or, less commonly, the sneeze and cough droplets of an infected person, are ingested in one's mouth. Cases of polio are thus more common among infants and children, especially those living in environments with poor hygiene.

Most people will not have any symptoms. Some will develop flu-like symptoms such as fever, fatigue, sore throat, nausea, headache and stomachache, which may last for 2-5 days and go away on their own. But in very few individuals, polio can cause serious symptoms, including paresthesia (pins-and-needles sensation in the legs), meningitis (infection of the covering of the brain and spinal cord), and rapid-onset paralysis of the arms, legs, or both. Some infected children who were asymptomatic or had only mild illness can later on develop new-onset muscle weakness and even paralysis in adult life. This is called post-polio syndrome.

There is no treatment against the poliovirus itself. Treatment is thus geared toward addressing the symptoms (e.g. giving paracetamol for fever, bed rest for fatigue).

Because polio is untreatable, it is important to maintain home and public sanitation, and practice good hygiene at home to avoid infections or creating an environment for the virus to grow and be transmitted. Vaccination is the surest way to prevent infection. Vaccines against polio are widely available and should be given as prescribed by physicians (i.e. as early as childhood).
Last Updated: February 21, 2024