Polio (Poliomyelitis) – Types, Symptoms, And Causes

Written by , MSc Shaheen Naser MSc Experience: 3 years
Last Updated on

In 1988, around 350,000 cases of polio were reported in 125 countries (1)! While the cases of polio have dropped to almost nil in the past few years, the mere mention of this disease continues to stir fear in everybody. If you want to know more about this highly contagious disease and its management options, keep reading.

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What Is Polio?

Polio is an infectious disease that attacks one’s nervous system. The age group with the highest risk of contracting it are children who are 5 years or younger. This contagious disease is caused by the poliovirus – hence the name.

Around 1 in every 200 polio infections used to cause permanent paralysis in affected individuals. Thanks to the global polio eradication initiative in 1988, the following regions are now polio-free:

  • America
  • Europe
  • Southeast Asia
  • Western Pacific

The polio vaccine was formulated in 1953 and was made available globally by 1957. From then on, the number of polio cases in the United States has dropped drastically.

Polio can be classified into different types based on its symptoms.

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Types Of Polio And Their Symptoms

About 95-99% of people who have contracted polio do not show any symptoms or are asymptomatic. This is known as subclinical polio. However, even without exhibiting the symptoms, affected individuals can still spread the infection.

The other two types of polio are:

  • Non-Paralytic Polio

The symptoms of non-paralytic polio can last anywhere between 1 to 10 days. They include:

  • A sore throat
  • Fever
  • Vomiting
  • Fatigue and tiredness
  • Meningitis
  • Headaches

Another term for non-paralytic polio is abortive polio (2).

  • Paralytic Polio

Contrary to non-paralytic polio, paralytic polio occurs in about 1% of the polio cases. This type can lead to paralysis in your spinal cord (spinal polio), brainstem (bulbar polio), or both (bulbospinal).

The initial symptoms associated with paralytic polio are similar to that of non-paralytic polio. However, within a week, these symptoms may increase in their severity and may include:

  • Muscle spasms and pain
  • Limbs may feel loose and floppy, especially on one side
  • Sudden onset of paralysis that can be temporary or even permanent
  • Loss of reflexes
  • Limb deformities, especially in the hips, feet, and ankles

Permanent paralysis due to polio occurs in less than 1% of the cases. And in around 5-10% of the polio paralysis cases, the poliovirus can attack the muscles that help you breathe, thereby causing death.

Post-Polio Syndrome

It is also possible for polio to recur after you have recovered successfully from it. This can occur between 30-40 years after the first infection and is termed as post-polio syndrome (3). Its symptoms can include:

  • Joint and muscle weakness
  • Muscle pain that gets worse
  • Fatigue and exhaustion
  • Muscle atrophy (muscle wasting)
  • Trouble in breathing and/or swallowing
  • Sleep apnea
  • Low tolerance to cold temperatures
  • Weakness in previously unaffected muscles
  • Depression
  • Cognitive problems like trouble in concentrating or memory problems

Polio can be transmitted in various ways. The causes and risk factors are listed below.

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What Are The Causes And Risk Factors?

Some of the most common ways in which polio is contracted are via (4):

  • Infected feces
  • Infected air (coughing or sneezing)
  • Drinking contaminated water

A weak immunity might also make you more vulnerable to contracting polio.

You can also increase your risk of contracting the disease when you are not yet vaccinated by:

  • Traveling to an area with a polio outbreak
  • Living with an infected individual
  • Handling a laboratory specimen of the poliovirus
  • Getting your tonsils removed
  • Involving yourself in strenuous activity or stress right after you have been exposed to the virus
  • Getting pregnant (as it weakens your immunity)

If your symptoms indicate that you could be infected with the poliovirus, it is best to consult a doctor for proper diagnosis.

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How To Diagnosis Polio?

Your doctor will first assess the signs and symptoms that you have been exhibiting.

They may conduct a physical examination to look for impaired reflexes, back/neck stiffness, or difficulty in lifting your head from a resting position.

Laboratory tests of your throat, stool, or cerebrospinal fluid samples will be carried out for detecting the poliovirus (5).

Once the virus is detected, your doctor will suggest treatments that can help in managing the symptoms while the infection runs its course.

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Medical Treatments

While there is no cure for polio, there are many medical treatments that aim at improving the quality of life of the affected individuals by improving their symptoms.

Some of the most common supportive treatments are (4):

  • Getting ample bed rest
  • Painkillers
  • Antispasmodic drugs to keep your muscles relaxed
  • Antibiotics to treat urinary tract infections
  • Corrective braces to assist you in walking
  • Physical therapy to treat pain and help with walking
  • Portable ventilators to make breathing easier
  • Heating pads to relieve muscle aches and spasms
  • Pulmonary rehabilitation to increase your lung endurance

Advanced cases of leg weakness may require the patient to use a wheelchair or other mobility devices.

Given below is some additional information on physical therapy and exercises that can help in managing the symptoms of poliomyelitis. These are especially useful in managing post-polio syndrome.

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Physical Therapy And Exercises

Physical therapy or physiotherapy is highly recommended for those who are battling polio or post-polio syndrome (6). It may include cardiopulmonary endurance and strength exercises.

Weight training can help strengthen your muscles, but it may deteriorate the health of the muscles that are already weak.

Cardio exercises like indoor cycling, brisk walking on a treadmill, and jumping lunges can help in increasing the endurance of your heart and lungs.

The prescriptions for exercises must include specific muscle groups to be included, the muscle groups that should be excluded, and the type of exercises and their duration according to the needs of your muscles.

It is best if a professional therapist suggests strengthening and stretching exercises according to the needs of your muscles. Always consult a therapist before initiating any new exercise or workout.

Here are some additional tips that can assist in managing the symptoms of polio as well as post-polio syndrome.

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Tips To Manage

  • Get enough rest and sleep.
  • Follow a healthy and well-balanced diet.
  • Quit smoking.
  • Take your medications regularly.
  • Use assistive devices to improve the quality of your remaining life.

You must know that the only way you can prevent a polio infection is by getting the poliomyelitis vaccine right at a young age. Prevention is better than cure, and this statement couldn’t be any truer when it comes to polio.

Did this post address all your queries regarding poliomyelitis? Let us know in the comment box below.

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Frequently Asked Questions

What part of the body is most often affected by poliomyelitis?

The parts of the body that are most commonly affected by polio are the limbs. It can also affect other body parts – like your arms.

Why does polio affect the legs?

Polio attacks your central nervous system. It can affect the cervical, thoracic, or lumbar regions of your spinal cord, which can lead to muscle weakness or
temporary/permanent paralysis.

How does polio affect the brain?

Once the poliovirus enters an individual, it attacks the person’s brainstem and spinal cord. This can cause muscle weakness, fatigue, cognitive problems, or even paralysis.

Do adults get polio?

Adults are at a higher risk of developing polio if they have not been administered the polio vaccine. Adults with a history of polio can develop the post-polio syndrome 30-40
years after the first infection.

How does the poliovirus infect someone?

Poliovirus is transmitted via contact with infected feces. It can also be contracted by coming in contact with the cough/sneeze droplets of an infected individual.

How do doctors treat polio?

While there is no cure for polio, your doctors may prescribe therapies that can improve the quality of your remaining life.


1. “Progress Toward Polio Eradication – Worldwide, January 2016–March 2018” Morbidity and Mortality Weekly Report, US National Library of Medicine.
2. “Paralytic vs. “nonparalytic” polio: distinction without a difference?” American Journal of Physical Medicine & Rehabilitation, US National Library of Medicine.
3. “Post-Polio Syndrome” Current Treatment Options in Neurology, US National Library of Medicine.
4. “Poliomyelitis” The Neurohospitalist, US National Library of Medicine.
5. “Poliomyelitis and the postpolio syndrome” British Medical Journal, US National Library of Medicine.
6. “Physical therapy management of the patient with post-polio syndrome. A case report.” Physical Therapy, US National Library of Medicine.

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Shaheen Naser
Shaheen NaserHealth & Wellness Writer
Shaheen holds a postgraduate degree in Human Genetics and Molecular Biology from Bharathiar University. She is a Geneticist with proficiency in Biotechnology, Immunology, Medical Genetics, Biochemistry, Microbiology, and Genetic Counseling.

Read full bio of Shaheen Naser
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