What is polio - is there a cure and do you need a vaccine?

6 min read

Polio is a serious viral infection that used to be common worldwide. It's rare nowadays because it can be prevented with vaccination.

Most US residents will have had their vaccine as a child. But do check your vaccination status. Check with your doctor of public health clinic. Keep in mind that vaccination records are usually mainatained at a doctor's office for a limited number of years.

Do you need a polio vaccination?

The polio vaccination is offered as part of routine childhood vaccination programmes.

CDC recommends that children get 4 doses of polio vaccine. After you have received 4 doses you are fully vaccinated.

They should get 1 dose at:

  • 2 months old
  • 4 months old
  • 6-18 months old
  • 4- 6 years old

If you're planning to travel to a polio-affected country, you should get vaccinated if you've not been fully vaccinated before. If you're fully-vaccinated, talk to your doctor to see if you'll need a one-off lifetime booster for travel. Read more about

travel vaccinations
.

You can also get vaccinated at any point if you haven't been fully vaccinated before. If you are fully-vaccinated, talk to your doctor to see if you'll need a one-off lifetime booster for travel.

If you've had polio in the past and haven't been vaccinated, it's still recommended that you get fully vaccinated. There are three types of polio virus that the vaccine protects against, and people who have had the infection before will only be immune to one of these.

Most people with polio don't have any symptoms and won't know they're infected. But for up to 1 in 100 people, the polio virus causes temporary or permanent

paralysis
, which can be life-threatening.

Cases of polio in the US fell dramatically when routine vaccination was introduced in the mid-1950s.Before that polio outbreaks caused more than 15,000 cases of parlysis each year.

The first polio case in the US since 2013 was reported in New York in July 2022, the polio virus has also been detected by routine monitoring of the city's sewage water.

There's no cure for polio, so it's important to make sure that you and your children are fully vaccinated against it.

Symptoms of polio

Most people with polio win't have any symptoms and will fight off the ingection without even realising they were infected.

According to CDC, 1 in 4 people will expereince a

flu
-like illness 3 to 21 days after they're infected, with symptoms such as:

These symptoms will usually pass within about a week.

In less than 1% of cases, the polio virus attacks the nerves in the spine and base of the brain. This can cause paralysis, usually in the legs, that develops over hours or days.

The paralysis isn't usually permanent, and movement will often slowly return over the next few weeks and months. However, some people are left with persistent problems (see below) and if the breathing muscles are affected, it can be life-threatening.

Long-term problems caused by polio

Although polio often passes quickly without causing any other problems, it can sometimes lead to persistent or lifelong difficulties.

About 1 in every 200 people with the infection will have some degree of permanent paralysis, and others may be left with problems that require long-term treatment and support, such as:

  • muscle weakness
  • shrinking of the muscles (atrophy)
  • tight joints (contractures)
  • deformities, such as twisted feet or legs

There's also a chance that someone who has had polio in the past will develop similar symptoms again, or worsening of their existing symptoms, many decades later. This is known as

post-polio syndrome
.

What causes polio?

You can become infected with the polio virus if you come into contact with the poo (faeces) of someone with the infection, or with the droplets launched into the air when they cough or sneeze.

You can also get the infection from food or water that has been contaminated with infected poo or droplets.

If the virus gets into your mouth, it travels to your throat and bowels, where it starts to multiply. In some cases, it can also get into the bloodstream and spread to the nervous system.

The virus can be spread by someone with the infection from about a week before any symptoms develop, until several weeks afterwards. Infected people who don't have any symptoms can still pass polio on to others.

There have been rare cases where polio has been caused by being vaccinated with a live version of the polio virus.

Where is polio found?

As a result of routine vaccination programmes, polio has been largely wiped out in most parts of the world.

Areas declared polio-free by the World Health Organization (WHO) include Europe, the Americas, the Western Pacific region and, most recently, South East Asia.

However, polio is found in some places. It's still a significant problem in Afghanistan, Nigeria and Pakistan, and there's a potential risk of infection in other parts of Africa and some Middle Eastern countries.

You can use the country guide on the CDC travel site

CDC travel site
to check if there's a risk of getting polio in a country you plan to visit.

Treating polio

There's currently no cure for polio. Treatment focuses on supporting bodily functions and reducing the risk of long-term problems while the body fights off the infection.

This can include bed rest in hospital, painkillers, breathing support and regular stretches or exercises to prevent problems with the muscles and joints.

If you're left with long-term problems as a result of a polio infection, you'll probably need ongoing treatment and support.

This may include

physiotherapy
to help with any movement problems, devices such as splints and braces to support weak limbs or joints,
occupational therapy
to help you adapt to any difficulties, and possibly surgery to correct any deformities.

Important: Our website provides useful information but is not a substitute for medical advice. You should always seek the advice of your doctor when making decisions about your health.