What Is Polio?

While virtually eliminated in the US, polio is a serious illness caused by a virus that still affects many parts of the world. It can cause:

The polio virus can be spread by drinking water or eating food that is contaminated with the virus. It can also be spread through person-to-person contact (eg, kissing) or fecal-oral contact. This type of contact is more likely to occur in unsanitary conditions.

Anyone can develop this infection. It mainly affects children under five years old. Also, it is more likely to lead to paralysis in certain people, including those who:

  • Have immune deficiency
  • Are pregnant
  • Had their tonsils removed
  • Take intramuscular injections
  • Exercise strenuously
  • Are injured

Before the 1950s, when the polio vaccine was developed, this disease affected thousands of children each year. But the use of the vaccine has made polio very rare in developed nations.

Symptoms include:

  • Mild fever
  • Sore throat
  • Abdominal pain
  • Vomiting
  • Meningitis
  • Paralysis

There is no cure for polio. Treatments to manage the symptoms of the disease include:

  • Antibiotics
  • Pain medicines
  • Ventilators to help breathing
  • Exercise
  • Healthful diet

What Is the Polio Vaccine?

The polio vaccine is made of inactivated polio virus. In the past, an oral vaccine containing live polio vaccine was used. Since there is a small risk of getting polio from the oral vaccine, it is no longer recommended. Today's polio vaccine is given by injection into the arm or leg.

Who Should Get Vaccinated and When?

The polio vaccine is recommended for all children. The vaccine can be given to babies as young as 6 weeks. This is only done if the baby is at an increased risk of infection. The regular schedule for giving the vaccine is at ages 2, 4, 6-18 months, and at 4 years. If the child receives the fourth dose before age 4 years, then he will need a fifth dose between 4-6 years.

Certain higher risk adults who did not receive the polio vaccine as children should talk with their doctors about whether they should get it. These include:

  • People traveling to areas of the world where polio is common
  • Laboratory workers who handle the polio virus
  • Healthcare workers who treat patients who may have polio

What Are the Risks Associated With the Polio Vaccine?

Most people have no problems with the polio vaccine. However, some experience soreness around the area where the shot was given. Like all vaccines, the polio vaccine carries a very small risk of serious reaction, such as a severe allergic reaction.

Acetaminophen (eg, Tylenol) is sometimes given to reduce pain and fever that may occur after getting a vaccine. In infants, the medicine may weaken the vaccine's effectiveness. Discuss the risks and benefits of taking acetaminophen with your doctor.

Who Should Not Get Vaccinated?

You should not get the polio vaccine if you:

  • Are allergic to the medicines neomycin, streptomycin, or polymyxin B
  • Have had an allergic reaction to a previous polio vaccine
  • Have a moderate to severe illness (wait until you recover before getting the vaccine)

What Other Ways Can Polio Be Prevented Besides Vaccination?

Avoiding unsanitary conditions and practicing good personal hygiene (eg, washing your hands regularly) can prevent polio.

What Happens in the Event of an Outbreak?

In the event of an outbreak, all people who have not received the polio vaccine should receive it. The US maintains an emergency stockpile of the oral polio vaccine.