Last updated:

Reviewed by:

Dr Bryony Henderson

, Lead GP at Livi

Medically reviewed

Polio is a serious, but preventable, infection, which can spread easily. Fortunately, cases are very rare because of widespread polio vaccination around the world. Here’s everything you need to know about polio.

What is polio?

Polio is a preventable disease and is very uncommon. It’s a type of viral illness, which can spread through the body and enter the bloodstream. It’s a potentially dangerous infection as it can cause muscle weakness, paralysis or meningitis. Fortunately, due to a worldwide vaccination programme, cases are very rare.

How common is polio?

Although it is rare to have polio, especially in the UK, you may have seen the news that the polio virus has been detected in London sewage. Despite this, no cases have been reported in the UK The risk of infection is very low if you have received the polio vaccinations. 

Although most countries worldwide have had successful immunisation programmes against polio, some countries, like Afghanistan, Nigeria and Pakistan still have cases. In Europe, no cases of polio have been reported since 2003 and, in the UK, no cases of paralysis caused by polio since 1984.

What are symptoms of polio?

In some cases, polio has no symptoms. But it can have a range of different symptoms, including: 

  • ‘Flu-like’ symptoms including a sore throat, fever, nausea, or stomach pain

  • Feeling more tired or weak than usual

These symptoms usually improve after a few days.

In very rare cases, someone with polio will develop more severe symptoms:

  • Paralysis – weakness in the limbs, especially the legs

  • Meningitis – infection of the brain or spinal cord

Symptoms can last for about 10 days, after which, normally, the ability to move comes back. Sadly, in some cases, the paralysis is permanent. 

If you do have symptoms of muscle weakness or difficulty breathing, call 999 immediately.

How is polio spread?

Polio is usually spread through contact with poo. This can happen when someone doesn’t wash their hands properly after going to the toilet, or through eating infected food or drinking infected water.

Sometimes, it can spread if you cough or sneeze, but this is rare. 

In the UK and most countries around the world, the chance of catching polio is low, as a majority of the population have been vaccinated against it. But if you travel to countries where it is still present, such as Afghanistan, Nigeria and Pakistan, the risk of you catching it increases slightly. The risk of catching it is also higher if you are not vaccinated against polio.

How is polio diagnosed?

Polio can be diagnosed through several different tests.

Blood tests: a doctor might perform a blood test to see if some specific markers are raised. 

Stool samples: you might be asked to give a sample of your poo which is then analysed to see if the virus is present. 

Throat swabs: you might be asked by your doctor to provide a throat swab.

Is polio a notifiable disease?

Yes, if you or someone you know develops polio, a doctor or health professional has to inform Public Health England (PHE).

How is polio treated?

Although there is no specific treatment for polio, some things can be done to help with the recovery process: 

  • Resting 

  • Pain relief such as paracetamol or ibuprofen to help with symptoms 

  • If you have breathing difficulty, or develop respiratory failure which happens when your breathing is not effective, you might need some support such as oxygen or ventilatory support. 

  • Stretching exercises to prevent deformity 

  • If you have long term physical or respiratory complications, you might need some rehabilitation 

The most important thing to remember is that polio is a preventable disease, if you are vaccinated.

How can polio be prevented?

It is easy to prevent polio and the vaccine is offered as part of the NHS vaccination programme. It’s important to keep the vaccine up to date, not only for preventing polio but also for other diseases. Each child, under the age of 1, will be offered 3 doses of the 6-in-1 vaccine, which is made up of vaccines against:

  • Polio 

  • Diphtheria 

  • Hepatitis B 

  • Haemophilus influenza type B 

  • Tetanus 

  • Whooping cough (pertussis)

This is generally given at 8, 12 and 16 weeks old. 

At pre-school age (around 3 years and 4 months old), every child is offered the 4-in-1 pre-school booster, which is made up of vaccines against: 

  • Polio 

  • Diphtheria

  • Tetanus 

  • Whooping cough (pertussis)

At 14 years old, a further booster dose is offered. 

To be fully vaccinated, you need all 5 of these. However, it’s important that you speak to a GP if you would like one but haven’t had one, it can be given at any age. 

Because of the polio found in sewage, a further dose given between 1-9 years old is now being offered to children living in London. 

It is also important to remember that things such as maintaining good hand hygiene is very important to stop the spread of viruses and bacteria.

When should I seek help?

If you feel unwell after travelling abroad, or you have come into contact with someone with polio, seek medical help from your GP immediately. 

If you have problems with, or are struggling with your breathing, or you feel your muscles becoming weaker, go to A+E immediately.

Last updated:
Reviewed by:
Dr Bryony Henderson, Lead GP at Livi