Polio symptoms: The ‘flu-like’ side effects that could be a sign of polio infection
Polio virus found in samples from sewage works in London
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The virus which causes polio was thought to have been eradicated from the UK back in 2003, though the recent detection of several “genetically-linked viruses” in London sewage has raised the alarm. While it is common for one to three ‘vaccine-like’ polioviruses to be detected every year in UK sewage samples, knowing the key symptoms of this potentially life-threatening infection is crucial to seeking immediate treatment. Here are the most common signs to look out for if you think you are at risk of contracting polio.
Vaccination means polio is now very rare in most parts of the world and has not been found in the UK for almost 20 years.
According to the NHS, this contagious infection is mainly found in two countries: Afghanistan and Pakistan, and can be spread when an infected person coughs or sneezes.
Polio can also be caught from food or water that’s been in contact with the poo of someone who has the virus.
The effects of poliovirus can result in paralysis once the virus infects a person’s spinal cord, but what exactly should you be looking for in terms of visible symptoms?
What are the main symptoms of polio?
Knowing if you have polio is not easy to do, as most people do not present clear signs of infection.
In fact, the Centres for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) estimated that 72 in every 100 people who get infected with poliovirus will not have visible symptoms.
Around 25 percent of people will develop flu-like side effects when they become infected with polio.
According to the CDC, these generic symptoms tend to include:
- Sore throat
- Stomach pain
In most cases, these symptoms last two to five days, though the NHS states that they can continue for as long as 10 days.
Complications of the virus can have devastating effects on the body, with difficulty in the muscles being one of the most concerning consequences of contracting the infection.
The NHS said: “Rarely, polio can cause difficulty using your muscles (paralysis), usually in the legs. This can happen over hours or days.
“It’s not usually permanent and movement will slowly come back over the next few weeks or months.”
While paralysis isn’t always long-lasting, it can be life-threatening if the poliovirus attacks the muscles that are used for breathing.
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What to do if you think you have polio
NHS advice states that people who have travelled to a country where polio is found and are experiencing symptoms should:
- Ask for an urgent GP appointment
- Get help from NHS 111 over the phone or online
The CDC explained that the poliovirus can be detected in specimens from the throat, faeces and occasionally cerebrospinal fluid.
A blood test can also be done to detect poliovirus antigens to confirm a diagnosis.
What are the long-term symptoms of polio?
The risk of paralysis isn’t the only lifelong difficulty associated with polio.
There are several other long-term symptoms which can continue to impact the body beyond recovery from the infection.
If you’ve had polio before, you may develop symptoms again or your symptoms may get worse, sometimes decades later. This is called post-polio syndrome (PPS).
According to the British Polio Fellowship, a charity that has been supporting people living with the effects of polio and post-polio syndrome for over 80 years, signs of PPS include:
- Persistent fatigue (extreme tiredness)
- Muscle weakness
- Shrinking muscles
- Muscle and joint pain
- Sleep apnoea
The British Polio Fellowship (BPF) said: “The condition can have a significant impact on everyday life, making it very difficult to get around and carry out certain tasks and activities.
“The symptoms tend to get gradually worse over many years, but this happens very slowly and treatment may help slow it down further.”
While post-polio syndrome is rarely life-threatening, some people develop breathing and swallowing difficulties that can lead to serious problems, such as chest infections.
Unlike polio, PPS is not contagious as it is thought to be caused by the dormant virus existing in your body and reactivating years after the initial infection.
The BPF explained: “It’s not clear why only some people who’ve had polio develop post-polio syndrome.
“Those who had severe polio when they were younger may be more likely to develop the condition.”
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