What is Polio?

Updated at: Jan 18, 2013
What is Polio?

Poliomyelitis is an infectious viral disease, which can affect nerves thereby, causing partial, full paralysis or even death. The virus, which causes the infection, is known as poliovirus.

Dr Poonam Sachdev
Communicable DiseasesWritten by: Dr Poonam SachdevPublished at: Mar 01, 2012

Polio dropsPoliomyelitis is an infectious viral disease, which can affect nerves thereby, causing partial, full paralysis or even death. The virus, which causes the infection, is known as poliovirus. The virus can spread from person to person by:

  • Direct contact
  • Contact with mucus or phlegm from the nose or mouth of infected person
  • Contact with infected feces (transmission by fecal-oral route including through contaminated water is the most common route of spread of polio virus).

The virus enters the body through the mouth and nose. It infects the throat and intestinal tract and multiplies here. After a few days, it gets absorbed into blood and spreads to nerves and different parts of the body through the blood and lymph system. The incubation period (time from being infected with the virus to developing symptoms of disease) can vary from 5 - 35 days (average 7 - 14 days).

Wild polio virus was eradicated from the western hemisphere, but it continues to be endemic in Nigeria, India, Pakistan and Afghanistan even though efforts to control them are ongoing.

You are at risk of infection with polio virus if:

  • You are not immunized
  • You travel to an area with a polio outbreak

During an outbreak, children, pregnant women and the elderly are at a higher risk of getting infected with the virus.

Everyone, who gets the infection, does not develop paralysis. Based on the symptoms and severity of symptoms, polio can be categorized into three patterns: subclinical infections, nonparalytic and paralytic polio.

According to research, approximately 95% of infections are subclinical i.e. they have no symptoms or their symptoms may last 72 hours or less. When the virus affects the central nervous system (brain and spinal cord), the infection can be categorized as non-paralytic and paralytic polio.

Non-paralytic polio causes flu-like symptoms. Signs and symptoms of paralytic polio are similar to non-paralytic polio in the initial stages, which progress in a few days to symptoms specific to paralytic polio or the onset of paralysis can be sudden. Symptoms of paralytic polio include:

  • Loss of reflexes
  • Severe muscle aches or spasms
  • Loose and floppy limbs (flaccid paralysis) or muscle weakness, often worse on one side of the body (asymmetrical)
  • Difficulty in breathing
  • Drooling of saliva
  • Extreme sensitivity to touch

There is no medication to kill the virus, but the infection can be prevented with vaccination. Treatment includes supportive treatment to control symptoms while the infection runs its course and cases with acute paralysis may need lifesaving measures, especially, breathing help. After the acute stage, a person with residual paralysis needs physical therapy, braces or corrective shoes or orthopedic surgery to regain muscle strength and function.




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