Polio: Causes, Symptoms, Prevention, and Treatments

Poliomyelitis, or polio, is a highly infectious viral disease that can be deadly. The polio virus, which can cause paralysis when it invades the nervous system, is usually transmitted through contaminated food and water. While there is no cure for polio, it can be prevented by immunisation.

Polio is an acute contagious viral illness caused by the polio virus. It affects the muscles and nerves throughout the body and may cause permanent paralysis or even lead to death.

There are three patterns of polio infection; subclinical, paralytic and non-paralytic. Ninety-five percent of infections are subclinical and often go unnoticed. Since the development and the use of vaccines against polio, the disease has become far less common.

Causes and Risk Factors

The polio virus is highly contagious and is transmitted by contact with secretions from the nose, mouth, or faeces of an infected person. It can also spread through direct contact with an infected person or if an unimmunised person comes into contact with someone who recently received the oral polio vaccine (OPV) and has the live virus.

The spread of polio is usually through a faecal-oral route in areas with poor sanitation. The virus enters through the nose and mouth, multiplies in the nose and intestinal tract and is then absorbed and spread through the blood and lymphatic system. The incubation period (the time from being infected to the appearance of symptoms) is seven to 14 days.

You may be at risk of polio if you have not been immunised against the disease. Although polio affects people of all ages, there are certain groups of people such as infants, children, older people and pregnant women who are more vulnerable to the infection. A person with a weakened immune system, like those with HIV or under extreme stress, is also at a higher risk of polio infection.

Polio: Signs and Symptoms 

Sufferers of polio have the following symptoms:
 • In mild cases — headache, slight fever, nausea and vomiting for up to three days
 • In slightly more severe cases — moderate fever, muscle pain, a stiff neck and back, fatigue
 • In most severe cases — fever, muscle pain or spasms, muscle weakness, stiffness, constipation, tremors and difficulty with swallowing

Effects of Polio

The effects of post-polio infection include:
 • Onset of progressive muscular weakness in muscles affected during the original infection. However, other muscles that seem not to be affected during the original infection may also be affected.
 • Joint pain and fatigue
 • Memory and concentration levels may be adversely affected
 • In fewer incidences, muscles may become weakened (atrophy)
 • Difficulty swallowing and extended periods of fatigue


Paralytic polio can cause severe physical disabilities due to muscle paralysis and deformities of the hips, ankles and feet. Polio can also cause serious complications to other organs such as the lungs, intestines, kidneys and heart.


There is no cure for polio; it can only be prevented by vaccination. Treatment of symptoms is all that can be done for the polio sufferer. For instance, antibiotics are used to treat urinary tract infections. Bethanechol is used to reduce urine retention. Analgesics are used to reduce headaches and muscle pain.


The most effective way to prevent the disease is getting vaccinated. Immunisation against polio is recommended for all children from two to 18 months of age. Booster doses should be given to all children up to 12 years of age.

It is also important to practice good personal hygiene to reduce the spread of the polio virus.

Polio: Causes, Symptoms, Prevention, and Treatments

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