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Polio

What is polio?

Polio is a disease caused by a virus that affects the nervous system and is mainly spread by person-to-person contact. Polio can also be spread by drinking water or other drinks or eating raw or undercooked food that are contaminated with the feces of an infected person.

Most people with polio do not feel sick. Some people have only minor symptoms, such as fever, tiredness, nausea, headache, nasal congestion, sore throat, cough, stiffness in the neck and back, and pain in the arms and legs. Most people recover completely. In rare cases, polio infection causes permanent loss of muscle function in the arms or legs (usually the legs) or if there is loss of function of the muscles used for breathing or infection of the brain, death can occur.

From the late 1940s to the early 1950s, polio crippled around 35,000 people each year in the United States alone, making it one of the most feared diseases of the 20th century. By 1979, the United States was polio free, but some countries continue to have cases. 

Who is at risk?

Travelers going to certain parts of Africa and Asia may be at risk for polio.

What can travelers do to prevent polio?

Get the polio vaccine:

  • Even if you were vaccinated as a child or have been sick with polio before, you may need a booster dose to make sure that you are protected.

Eat safe foods and drink safe beverages.

Practice hygiene and cleanliness:

  • Wash your hands often.
  • If soap and water aren’t available, clean hands with hand sanitizer (containing at least 60% alcohol).
  • Don’t touch your eyes, nose, or mouth. If you need to touch your face, make sure your hands are clean.
  • Cover your mouth and nose with a tissue or your sleeve (not your hands) when coughing or sneezing.
  • Try to avoid close contact, such as kissing, hugging, or sharing eating utensils or cups with people who are sick.

Page reviewed on: Mar 09, 2017

Page reviewed by: Jessie L. Leyse, MD

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