Introduction 

While polio is essentially a disease of the past, an increasing number of people who have had polio are developing a condition called post-polio syndrome (PPS).

PPS is a poorly understood condition that can cause a variety of symptoms, including pain, muscle weakness and fatigue.

About polio

Polio was very common in the past. It affected children worldwide, causing paralysis and death. In the UK, there was a widespread outbreak of polio during the 1940s and early 1950s.

Since routine polio vaccination was introduced in 1956, the number of polio cases has dramatically reduced. The last case of natural polio infection acquired in the UK was in 1984.

About 40 cases of polio have been reported in the UK since then, but these were thought to have been acquired abroad or occurred as a very rare side effect of the attenuated polio vaccine (containing the live virus) that was routinely used up until 2004.

There are now only three countries where the condition remains a widespread problem. These are Nigeria, Afghanistan and Pakistan.

There is no cure for polio, so it is important to prevent it from occurring by making sure your child receives all their necessary vaccinations. Read more about childhood vaccinations.

Post-polio syndrome (PPS)

It is estimated that there are around 120,000 people living in the UK who survived polio when they were younger. Some of these have, or will, develop a condition called post-polio syndrome (PPS).

Only people who have had polio can develop PPS, but it's not known exactly how many polio survivors are affected. Estimates vary from as low as 25% of those who have had polio to as high as 80%.

PPS takes decades to develop after the initial polio infection, taking an average of 30 years for symptoms to become noticeable.

The symptoms of PPS usually develop gradually and can include:

  • increasing muscle weakness
  • fatigue
  • muscle and joint pain
  • breathing or sleeping problems
  • sensitivity to the cold

Although PPS is rarely life threatening, it can greatly interfere with everyday life, making it difficult to get around or carry out some tasks and activities.

Read more about the symptoms of PPS and diagnosing PPS.

What causes post-polio syndrome?

The exact cause of PPS is unknown. However, the main theory is that PPS is the result of the gradual deterioration of nerve cells in the spinal cord (called motor neurones) that were damaged by the polio virus. This would also explain why PPS can take years to appear.

PPS is not contagious, and the theory that the polio virus may lay dormant in your system after the original infection, causing PPS when reactivated, has been disproven.

In recent years, PPS has become more common in the UK, largely because of the high number of polio cases during the 1940s and 1950s. However, as polio is no longer naturally active in the UK, PPS should become much rarer in the future.

Read more about the causes of PPS.

How post-polio syndrome is treated

Although there is currently no cure for PPS, a range of treatments and support is available to help manage the symptoms and improve quality of life.

Some of the ways that symptoms of PPS may be managed include:

  • physical therapy known as "pacing" to help recognise and manage fatigue
  • mobility aids, such as walking sticks or scooters
  • weight control and healthy eating to avoid putting unnecessary strain on muscles and joints
  • painkilling medication to help relieve any muscle or joint pain
  • discussing the psychological impact, which might be with your GP, on an online forum, or in a local support group

Read more about treating PPS.

Polio vaccine

Polio no longer exists naturally in the UK, largely because of the NHS childhood vaccination programme.

It is prevented by a series of five doses:

  • babies are offered polio vaccination as part of the 5-in-1 vaccine at two, three and four months of age
  • this is followed by a booster dose against polio as part of the 4-in-1 pre-school booster vaccine given to children aged three to four years
  • the fifth and final dose of polio vaccine is given as part of the 3-in-1 teenage booster that children have when they are 13-18 years old

Help and support

The British Polio Fellowship is a leading charity for people affected by polio and post-polio syndrome. It provides a range of useful resources, information and services.

Contact the telephone helpline on 0800 018 0586, or visit the British Polio Fellowship website.

Page last reviewed: 14/11/2013

Next review due: 14/11/2015