Poliomyelitis, also known as polio, is a potentially life-threatening viral disease. It is rare in developed countries due to vaccination programs, but polio still affects thousands of infants and young children worldwide each year. Poliomyelitis symptoms can range from very mild and short-lived digestive issues to paralyzing muscle weakness in the legs, back, or neck. It is important to seek treatment for a child or adult who exhibits even minor poliomyelitis symptoms to prevent serious complications.
Most cases of polio are relatively tame infections that may not even cause noticeable symptoms. Mild poliomyelitis symptoms may include headache, a slightly high fever, sore throat, and vomiting. Most patients' immune systems are strong enough to fight off the viral infection, and symptoms tend to get better in less than one week. Doctors can prescribe painkillers or antiviral medications to ease symptoms and shorten healing time.
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More serious poliomyelitis symptoms can arise if the virus reaches the central nervous system. Polio can be devastating to motor neurons in the brain stem and spread to nerve cells throughout the body, which can lead to a variety of symptoms. Some patients experience severe muscle stiffness in their necks and backs, spasms in their legs and arms, fatigue, skin rashes, and widespread pain. They may become dizzy, confused, and irritable over time. If motor neurons are only partially involved, symptoms tend to improve in about two weeks with treatment.
Rarely, poliomyelitis becomes a long-term, debilitating illness when a majority of nerve cells are affected. Numbness, tingling sensations, and extreme muscle weakness can come on suddenly in the legs or down one side of the body. Muscle contractions become more frequent, and a person may have difficulties chewing, swallowing, and breathing. Temporary or permanent paralysis can set in and lead to atrophy, or deterioration, of muscle tissue in the legs. The risk of stroke, shock, heart disease, and respiratory failure increase dramatically as severe poliomyelitis symptoms continue to worsen.
Emergency room treatment may be necessary if serious breathing problems develop. Doctors can provide intravenous medications to combat the spreading virus and attempt to stimulate muscle tissue with heating pads and massage. Even when the virus is eradicated, the damage done to the central nervous system can cause permanent muscle movement problems. Guided physical therapy exercises, ongoing medical care, and leg braces can help most patients rebuild some strength in their legs and learn how to walk or crawl again. Regular checkups are important throughout a person's lifetime to combat various health complications and to make sure that infection does not return.