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  • Amy Scholten, MPH
Publication Type:





Poliomyelitis (polio) is a serious viral infection. It can damage the muscles and nerves. It can also be fatal.

At this time, it is very rare in the Western world. This is due to vaccination.


Polio is caused by a certain virus. It is spreads from contact with:

  • Someone else who has it
  • Infected saliva or stool
  • Contaminated water or sewage

The virus enters the body through the mouth. It travels into the bowels. It grows and spreads quickly. The virus can also travel through the blood and lymph. From there, it can attack and damage parts of the nervous system. This can lead to loss of muscle control and paralysis.

Interaction of Lymph, Blood Vessels, and Intestines.

Lymph and vessels in Abdominehttp://services.epnet.com/getimage.aspx?imageiid=67476747lymph_vessel_abdominal.jpgLymph and vessels in AbdomineNULLjpgLymph and vessels in AbdomineNULL\\hgfiler01a\intellect\images\lymph_vessel_abdominal.jpgNULL130NULL2008-01-08397367Copyright © Nucleus Medical Media, Inc.

Risk Factors

The risks for polio are:

  • Never having the vaccine—or not finishing the series
  • Traveling to places where the infection is still common, such as:
    • Parts of Africa, Asia, and the Middle East
    • Ukraine


Some people may not have symptoms. In others, it may cause:

  • Sore throat
  • Fever
  • Sore muscles
  • Headache
  • Tiredness
  • Nausea
  • Back or neck pain and stiffness

If the nervous system is involved, it may cause:

  • Muscle weakness
  • Loose or floppy muscles
  • Breathing problems
  • Urinary problems
  • Inability to move one or both sides of the body

Some people have postpolio syndrome years after the first infection.


The doctor will ask about your symptoms, and health and travel history. A physical exam will be done. Tests may be done to look for infection. They may be:

  • Swabs of the throat or rectum
  • Stool testing
  • Blood tests
  • Lumbar puncture to test the fluid around the brain and spinal cord


The goal of treatment is to ease symptoms and lower the risk of problems. It may involve:

  • Rest
  • Medicines to ease pain and fever
  • Breathing support with a ventilator
  • Physical therapy—to help movement and muscle strength


The best way to prevent polio is with a vaccine. A booster vaccine may be needed for those who have a high risk. This includes people traveling to places where polio is common.





  • Polio eradication. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention website. Available at: https://www.cdc.gov/polio. . Accessed February 5, 2021.
  • Poliomyelitis. EBSCO DynaMed website. Available at: https://www.dynamed.com/condition/poliomyelitis Accessed February 2021.
  • Poliomyelitis. Merck Manual Professional Version website. Available at: https://www.merckmanuals.com/professional/infectious-diseases/enteroviruses/poliomyelitis. Accessed February 2021.
  • Poliomyelitis (polio). World Health Organization website. Available at: http://www.who.int/topics/poliomyelitis/en. Accessed February 2021.
  • Vashishtha VM, Kamath S. A brief history of vaccines against polio. Indian Pediatr. 2016; 7;53 Suppl 1:S20-S27.


  • David L. Horn, MD, FACP
Last Updated:

This content is reviewed regularly and is updated when new and relevant evidence is made available. This information is neither intended nor implied to be a substitute for professional medical advice. Always seek the advice of your physician or other qualified health provider prior to starting any new treatment or with questions regarding a medical condition.