Polio is a serious infection caused by polioviruses. These viruses are very contagious and spread through coughing, sneezing or contact with infected poo.
The proper name for polio is poliomyelitis.
In Australia, children are routinely immunised against polio, and Australia was declared free of polio in 2000. But polio still exists in other parts of the world. If children aren’t immunised, they could catch polio, especially if they travel overseas.
Symptoms of polio
Symptoms usually appear 3-21 days after infection with poliovirus. Some infected children don’t have any symptoms at all.
If symptoms do occur, they include:
These flu-like symptoms usually last around a week.
In severe cases of polio the nerves are affected. This usually causes permanent paralysis, which means that the nerves sending messages to the muscles don’t work anymore. The leg muscles are often more affected than the arm muscles. Paralysis can also affect breathing muscles and can lead to permanent disability and death.
Some people with severe polio develop new pain, weakness and fatigue many years after they’re first infected with polio. This is known as post-polio syndrome.
Severe cases of polio are rare.
Medical help: when to get it for children with polio symptoms
You should speak to your GP or go to your nearest hospital emergency department if your child:
- can’t or won’t drink fluids
- complains of severe headache
- complains of severe muscle pain
- is sleepy or weak
- has trouble breathing or swallowing
- has trouble moving their arms or legs.
Let your doctor know if your child hasn’t been immunised against polio.
You know your child best. If your child seems unwell, trust your instincts and seek urgent medical attention.
Tests for polio
To diagnose polio, your doctor will take your child’s medical history and carefully examine your child. Your doctor might take a sample from your child’s throat. The doctor might also take samples of your child’s poo or of the fluid around your child’s brain and spinal cord.
There’s no cure for polio.
Flu-like symptoms usually go away on their own. You can try giving your child pain medicine like paracetamol or ibuprofen if they’re uncomfortable. You can also help to ease your child’s symptoms by encouraging your child to get plenty of rest and drink plenty of fluids.
If your child has a severe case of polio with signs of paralysis, your child will need to be admitted to hospital.
Physiotherapy and medication for muscle spasms can help with the effects of paralysis.
In some cases, children with polio will need help with feeding and breathing.
Don’t give aspirin to children under 12 years unless it’s prescribed by a doctor. Aspirin can make your child susceptible to Reye’s syndrome, a rare but potentially deadly illness. If you’re giving your child any over-the-counter medicines, check with your pharmacist or doctor to make sure these have no aspirin.
Although Australia is polio free, the virus can be brought in from countries where it still exists.
This means that it’s still very important to have your child immunised against polio. As part of the Australian National Immunisation Program (NIP), your child will get free immunisation against polio at:
- 6-8 weeks
- 4 months
- 6 months
- 4 years.
These immunisations are given by injection, often in combination with immunisation against other diseases.