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What is Polio?


Polio is a viral infection that attacks the spinal cord and the central nervous system.


How is polio spread?

Polio virus is swallowed and spreads through the blood and lymph tissue to the nervous system. The virus destroys nerves. The disease is highly contagious and is primarily spread by the fecal-oral route, although an oral-oral transmission does occur.


What are the symptoms of polio?

Most infected individuals show no symptoms at all. Fewer than 10% of infected individuals suffer mild symptoms including fever, sore throat, nausea, and vomiting. These symptoms resolve after several days. Paralysis, the well-known and feared complication of polio, occurs in fewer than 1% of infected individuals. Many paralyzed patients improve substantially or completely, while others never recover. Some individuals who recover from acute polio develop pain and weakness decades later, a condition known as post-polio syndrome. These individuals are not infectious.


How is polio diagnosed?

Physicians diagnose polio based on the typical symptoms, although mild cases that quickly resolve will not be recognized as polio. The polio virus may be detected in the blood, the throat, and in the spinal fluid. Blood tests for antibodies to polio can also be used to make the diagnosis.


Is treatment available?

There is no specific treatment for polio. Medications are used to treat pain and fever, but this does not alter the course of the disease.


Can polio be prevented?

There is a safe and effective polio vaccine that is routinely given to children as a series of injections. In addition, since polio is spread by the fecal-oral route, make sensible food and beverage choices and drink bottled water and pasteurized milk and dairy products. Hand washing with soap and water before meals and after using the rest room are strongly advised.


Do international travelers need to be protected?

Yes. Polio remains a risk in many parts of the world, which are listed on this CDC site. Polio hot spots include some African countries, South Asia and the Middle East. Travelers headed for these regions, and other countries where polio exists, must discuss their vaccination history with their Travel Clinics of America physicians to verify that they are immune to all 3 strains of the virus. A polio booster shot may be necessary even if you have had polio and been vaccinated as a child.

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