Polio is a highly infectious and disabling disease. The poliovirus can infect the bloodstream and the nervous system, causing permanent paralysis. Polio is spread from person to person, and by infected faeces that can contaminate food and water. The polio risk is highest for people who have not been vaccinated against the disease, and children under five-years-old.

Cases in 2019
Primary regions
Africa and some Middle Eastern countries
People at highest risk
Unvaccinated, children under five
Sufferers with no symptoms
95 %

01. What causes polio?

It is a virus that causes polio. If the poliovirus gets into your mouth, it can travel to your throat, bowels and through your blood, making you very unwell.

Polio transmission can occur if you come into contact with the faeces of someone with the infection, or with the drops that spread into the air when they cough or sneeze.

Polio transmission can also occur through food or water that has been contaminated by infected faeces.

Polio is contagious, and it can be spread by someone with the infection from about a week before any symptoms develop, until several weeks afterwards. This means that infected people who do not have any symptoms can still pass polio on to others.

02. Risk areas

Due to routine vaccination programmes, polio is no longer found in most areas of the world, however, polio is still found in some places.

Polio transmission is most common in poorer communities. This is mainly because vaccinations are not available or affordable, and there is limited access to clean water and adequate toilet facilities.

Travellers are most at risk of polio when visiting Afghanistan, Nigeria and Pakistan, and there is a potential risk of infection in other parts of Africa and some Middle Eastern countries.

Remember that outbreaks can occur anywhere in the world if someone infected with the poliovirus travels to a different country and infects others. This means that the polio risk changes.

Check if the country you are travelling to has a risk of polio through the search bar below.

03. Symptoms of polio

Polio symptoms can range from mild to disabling or life threatening.

The majority of people (95%) do not experience any polio symptoms at all, and their body will fight off the infection without them even knowing they have it.

Some people will experience polio symptoms similar to flu. These symptoms usually appear three to 21 days after infection, which is known as the polio incubation period.

Mild polio symptoms usually pass within a week and can include:

  • high temperature

  • sore throat 

  • headache

  • stomach pain

  • aching muscles

  • feeling and being sick

In a small number of cases, polio can be life changing. The poliovirus attacks the nerves in the spine and base of the brain. This can cause paralysis, usually in the legs, that develops over hours or days.

The paralysis is not usually permanent, and movement will often slowly return over the next few weeks and months.

For some people, polio can leave them with long-term paralysis or disable them for life, so it is recommended that you check if you need to get vaccinated.

04. Diagnosis of polio

Polio is diagnosed through tests of your stool or a swab from your throat.

The doctor can find the poliovirus in your body for up to six weeks after you were first infected, and a diagnosis can therefore be made even though you do not see a doctor immediately.

05. Treatment of polio

There is currently no guaranteed polio cure. Once you become infected, the polio treatment process and your recovery depends on how your body is reacting, and how well your body is able to fight the poliovirus.

If your polio symptoms are mild, you may only need to rest at home and take painkillers until you are feeling well again. If you are left with long-term problems as a result of the poliovirus, you may need special support, such as physiotherapy, for many years.

Polio treatment may include:

  • bed rest in hospital or at home

  • painkillers

  • breathing support, such as a ventilator

  • exercises to prevent muscle and joint problems

  • physiotherapy

  • splints and braces to support weak muscles

  • possible surgery to correct deformities

06. Post polio syndrome

Post polio syndrome can only affect people who have been infected with the poliovirus in the past.

Post polio syndrome usually occurs 15 to 40 years after a person has had polio. Because many people infected by the poliovirus do not experience any symptoms and do not know they had the disease, post polio syndrome can be difficult to diagnose.

It is not clear why some polio survivors develop post polio syndrome, and others do not.

Unlike the poliovirus itself, post polio syndrome is not contagious. There is no cure for post polio syndrome, and treatment is similar to the treatment for serious polio symptoms.

A range of support is offered to help you manage pain and mobility issues, and to improve the quality of life while living with the condition. Assisted breathing may be required if you suffer from paralysis of the muscles that help you breathe.

07. Prevention of polio

The best way to prevent infection with polio is the polio vaccine.

If you need to get the polio vaccine, you can book a vaccination appointment online today.

If you are unsure if the polio vaccine is right for you, book a free telephone consultation to speak to one of our prescribing nurses, who can give you a personal recommendation based on your health and travel plans.

For effective polio prevention in risk areas, it is recommended that you:

  • check if you need the vaccine

  • learn about polio symptoms so you can spot the signs

  • avoid contact with anyone infected with polio

  • ensure good personal hygiene

  • are vigilant when choosing food and drink

  • take extra care if you are in contact with babies and children

  • dispose nappies and wipes carefully

Content reviewed by

Anne Marie Major, Independent Nurse Prescriber
24 June 2019