Guillain-Barre Syndrome

What is Guillain-Barre Syndrome?

Guillain-Barre syndrome (GBS) is an autoimmune disease that affects the nerves. Your body’s immune system attacks the myelin sheaths that surround peripheral nerves and can produce a range of symptoms, from mild to life-threatening, depending on where in the body the disease begins. In severe cases, paralysis may occur; and this process can be fatal when it affects breathing or heart function.

There are a few different forms of GBS, which are all relatively rare. Acute inflammatory demyelinating polyradiculoneuropathy (AIDP) is the most common type seen in the U.S. It occurs in about 1 in 100,000 people and may be triggered by another illness, an unusual reaction to a vaccine or a surgical complication. Recently, GBS has been in the news as possibly being connected to the Zika Virus, a mosquito-transmitted disease that can cause fever, aches and birth defects in pregnant women. People infected with Zika may also develop GBS.

Fortunately, GBS is not contagious. Medical professionals are not sure why some people develop very serious cases and others are barely impacted.

What are the Symptoms of Guillain-Barre Syndrome?

Many people develop Guillain-Barre syndrome with very mild symptoms.

Symptoms include

It can initially present with weakness or tingling sensations in your legs, arms and upper body.

Other symptoms include difficulty walking, chewing or swallowing; cramp-like pain; issues with bladder or bowel control; rapid heartbeat; fluctuations in blood pressure and trouble breathing.

Guillain-Barre Syndrome Causes

No one knows what causes Guillain-Barre syndrome. Research does not show correlations with certain societal groups, but instead suggests it can strike anyone at any time. While the exact cause of the disease is not known, it often occurs in people within a few weeks of a respiratory or viral infection. Particular infections that seem to correlate with Guillain-Barre syndrome diagnoses are influenza, cytomegalovirus (a strain of the herpes virus), Epstein-Barre virus, mononucleosis, mycoplasma pneumonia (an uncommon type of pneumonia caused by bacteria-like organisms) and HIV or AIDS. Occasionally, surgery can trigger Guillain-Barre syndrome as well. In extremely rare cases, some people may develop Epstein-Barre virus after receiving vaccinations. This is extremely uncommon, and the Center for Disease Control and the Food and Drug Administration have systems in place to monitor the safety of vaccinations and record any instances of Guillain-Barre syndrome as a result of a vaccination.

How is Guillain-Barre Syndrome Treated?

There is no way to prevent or cure Guillain-Barre syndrome, and most people recover completely from it. However, recovery can take weeks or even months.

Treatment includes

Doctors treat the symptoms that the disease causes by taking steps such as placing patients with respiratory paralysis on respirators or administering medications to treat high or low blood pressure. Pain medication and blood thinners may also be given if you have symptoms that require them.Serious cases can also be treated with the administration of immunoglobulin to support your immune system or plasma exchange, where the liquid plasma in your blood is filtered out, forcing your body to make more. There may be antibodies in the blood plasma that factor into the immune system’s malfunction, and removing the plasma can be beneficial.

Guillain-Barre Syndrome Prevention

There is no way to prevent Guillain-Barre syndrome, as scientists do not yet know the precise factors that trigger it. Since the events that seem to correlate with a higher chance of obtaining Guillain-Barre syndrome are largely unavoidable – respiratory and viral infections happen regularly and generally without significant incident – there are no significant efforts one can take to reduce their chances of contracting the disease. However, receiving vaccinations such as the influenza vaccination may lower one’s risk factor, as the vaccine would reduce the chances of contracting the flu.

In 1976, a swine flu vaccine caused people who received that vaccine to incur a slightly higher risk of Guillain-Barre syndrome. It is not entirely clear what caused this higher risk, but it is important to note that Guillain-Barre syndrome is incredibly rare, and people are far more likely to catch the flu if they miss a vaccine than contract Guillain-Barre syndrome. Guillain-Barre syndrome affects people who have and have not received flu vaccines.

While Guillain-Barre syndrome cannot be prevented, it can be treated, and most patients recover within a year of contracting the illness.

Last Reviewed:
September 21, 2016
Last Updated:
July 06, 2018