About polio

Polio is a serious infection caused by polioviruses. These viruses spread through coughing, sneezing or contact with infected poo.

The proper name for polio is poliomyelitis.

Australian 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.

Symptoms of polio

The polio virus usually infects children 3-21 days before any symptoms appear. But most infected children don't have any symptoms at all.

If symptoms do show up, they include:

  • fever
  • headache
  • tiredness
  • vomiting
  • general muscle aches.

These flu-like symptoms usually last around a week.

In severe cases of polio (less than 1%) 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 paralysis 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.

Does your child need to see a doctor about polio symptoms?

You should speak to your GP or go to a 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
  • you're worried about your child.

Let your doctor know if your child hasn't been immunised against polio. If your child isn't immunised, your child could catch polio, especially if you travel overseas.

Tests for polio

To diagnose polio, your doctor will take your child's medical history and carefully examine her. 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.

Polio treatment

There's no cure for polio.

Flu-like symptoms usually go away on their own. You can try giving your child pain medication like paracetamol if he's uncomfortable. You can also help ease symptoms by encouraging your child to get lots of rest and drink plenty of fluids.

If your doctor thinks your child might have a severe case of polio because of signs of paralysis, your child will need to go 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.

Polio prevention

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.