Poliomyelitis (Polio)

By Marisa Ramiccio. May 7th 2016

In the United States and many other western countries, poliomyelitis, or polio, is thought of as a disease of the past. But, unfortunately, in some African and Middle Eastern countries, polio is still alive and well. And as the World Health Organization (WHO) states on its website, if one child is infected, every child is at risk of being infected. Therefore, it’s important for everyone to be aware of how this disease is contracted and how to prevent the spread of it from happening.

What Is Poliomyelitis?

Poliomyelitis is more commonly known as polio and is a highly infectious disease that mostly affects children five years of age and under. Polio is caused by a viral infection that’s either transmitted through contact with another person or through contact with infected phlegm, mucus or feces. The virus enters the mouth or nose and begins to multiply in the throat and intestines. From there, the virus will enter the bloodstream and lymphatic system and could ultimately lead to paralysis and even death.

How Does Polio Spread?

In recent decades, this disease has been largely eradicated; according to the WHO, the number of reported cases of polio has decreased by 99 percent since 1988. However, polio is still prevalent in Nigeria, Pakistan and Afghanistan, so that doesn’t mean that the United States and other western countries are in the clear.

According to the WHO, from 2009 to 2012, 23 countries that remained uninfected were re-infected due to human importation of the disease. Those who have not received immunizations for polio are at risk for contracting and transmitting the disease if they travel to an area that is still infected. Because of this, the WHO has created a global vaccination campaign in an effort to eradicate the spread of this disease.

Symptoms And Complications

If a person does contract the disease, symptoms should begin to appear a week or two after being infected but they can appear as early as five days or as late as 35 days after being infected. There are actually two different types of polio infections: subclinical and clinical. The symptoms of a subclinical infection are:

  • Headache
  • Malaise
  • Mild fever
  • Vomiting
  • Sore throat

About 95 percent of polio infections are subclinical and a majority of that 95 percent won’t display any symptoms at all. Those that do, usually experience them for about 72 hours.

The second type of infection is clinical poliomyelitis, which affects the central nervous system and may occur after a subclinical infection. Its symptoms can be broken down into two patterns: non-paralytic and paralytic. The symptoms of a non-paralytic infection usually last a day or two and include:

  • Back pain
  • Headache
  • Diarrhea or vomiting
  • Irritability
  • Leg or neck pain
  • Skin rash or lesions
  • Muscle tenderness or spasms
  • Fever

The symptoms of a paralytic infection include:

  • Fever lasting about a week followed by other symptoms
  • Bloating
  • Difficulty breathing or swallowing
  • Headache
  • Abnormal sensations in areas of the body
  • Drooling
  • Constipation or difficulty urinating
  • Muscle pain, spasms or weakness

Paralytic infections can eventually lead to irreversible paralysis. According to the WHO, one in 200 polio cases will lead to paralysis and five to 10 percent of those cases will lead to death due to breathing difficulties caused by paralysis.

Aside from the mentioned symptoms, polio can also cause complications such as:

  • High blood pressure
  • Kidney stones
  • Urinary tract infections
  • Pulmonary edema
  • Shock


Once these symptoms have begun to appear, it’s important to seek medical attention immediately. The doctor may look for certain signs such as stiffness or abnormal reflexes. The doctor may also conduct certain tests such as:

  • Antibody test – This will test the level of antibodies for the polio virus.
  • CSF test – This will measure the amount of protein, sugar and chemicals that are present in the cerebrospinal fluid, or CSF, which protects the brain and spinal cord.
  • Culture test – The doctor may test a stool or throat sample.


Those infected with polio are treated based on the severity of the symptoms. Many are given antibiotics and other medications to help with urinary issues while others may need to take painkillers and using heating pads or moist pads to help with muscle pain and spasms. And some may need to undergo physical therapy to recover muscle strength or receive treatment to overcome breathing difficulties.

Prognosis And Prevention

As with treatment, the prognosis depends on which type of infection the person has. Those who have a subclinical infection usually recover. But those who have either type of clinical infection, non-paralytic or paralytic, may not fare so well and may succumb to paralysis and possibly death.

Even if someone does recover from polio, that doesn’t mean that that person has completely recovered. Sometimes, someone who has previously been infected with polio may develop post-polio syndrome, which can occur 30 or more years after the initial infection. Post-polio syndrome can lead to muscle weakness in muscles that may or may not have been affected by the original polio infection.

Although polio can have a damaging effect on health, worldwide efforts to eradicate the disease have had a damaging effect on it. It’s now only prevalent in three countries around the world and the spread of it can easily be prevented through immunizations, which are more than 90 percent effective. With the continuation of worldwide immunization efforts, hopefully polio will really become a disease of the past.


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