Poliomyelitis (polio) factsheet


Poliomyelitis, or polio, is a condition caused by the poliovirus. It can damage the nerves in the spinal cord and brain stem and can cause severe illness and permanent disability.

The poliovirus spreads through the poo and saliva of a person who is unwell with the virus. Children can come into contact with infected poo and saliva when they:

  • eat contaminated food
  • drink contaminated fluids
  • put contaminated hands or objects in their mouth and nose
  • has contact with infected fluid droplets from a person coughing or sneezing.

Polio is very rare in Australia thanks to immunisation programmes and clean drinking water.

Polio still exists in a few countries, so children are still at risk if they have not been vaccinated against polio and: 

  • are under five years old
  • have a weakened immune system from illness or treatments like chemotherapy
  • are travelling to and from an at-risk country
  • are a newly arrived migrant from an at-risk country
  • have contact with a person who may be infected.

 Signs and symptoms

Most people infected with poliovirus will have no symptoms and may not even know they are unwell. Children who do have symptoms may find they develop between 3 – 21 days after they are infected with the virus.

People who have poliovirus can spread the virus for up to six weeks through their poo. The virus can also remain in the throat and spread through fluid droplets and saliva for up to two weeks.

Mild symptoms of poliovirus can last up to ten days and include:

  • fever
  • tiredness
  • headaches
  • nausea and vomiting
  • stiffness in the back, neck, arms, and legs
  • muscle weakness.

Polio can spread to the nervous system, including the brain stem and spinal cord. When this happens, symptoms are severe and can include:

  • inflammation and swelling of the brain or spinal cord
  • meningitis – infection, inflammation and swelling of the fluid and tissue around the brain and spinal cord
  • paralysis – losing the ability to move different parts of the body.

Paralysis in polio happens quickly. Along with difficulty moving, it can cause:

  • stiffness in the neck and back
  • issues with swallowing
  • issues with breathing
  • weakness in the arms and legs
  • issues with balance and coordination. 


Your child’s doctor will diagnose polio by:

  • doing a physical check of your child’s symptoms
  • checking your child’s vaccination and travel history
  • testing samples of:
    • blood
    • poo
    • fluid from the nose and throat
    • cerebrospinal fluid - fluid that surrounds the brain and spinal cord.


There is no cure for polio. Treatment of polio aims to: 

  • help your child recover from severe symptoms
  • manage ongoing effects of the disease
  • prevent further complications.

Treatment options will depend on your child’s symptoms and can include:

  • antibiotics to treat any other infections
  • medication for pain relief
  • portable ventilators to help with breathing
  • medication to manage muscle spasms
  • physiotherapy to recover from paralysis and build strength.


Polio vaccine

Polio is very rare in Australia because of the polio vaccine. The polio vaccine is included in the National Immunisation Program Schedule for children in Australia. This means the vaccination is free.

Babies and children can get the polio vaccine at:

  • two, four and six months of age – in one, combine vaccine for 
    • diphtheria
    • tetanus
    • whooping cough
    • hepatitis B
    • polio
    • Haemophilus influenzae type b (Hib).
  • four years of age – in one, combined booster vaccine for 
    • diphtheria
    • tetanus
    • whooping cough
    • polio.

The polio vaccine is available as a catch-up for anyone who has not been fully vaccinated.

This includes:

  • Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander people
  • refugees and asylum seekers over the age 10
  • children and young people ages 10-19 years who have missed their childhood vaccinations.

Side effects from vaccines are uncommon and usually mild but may include:

  • pain and swelling where the needle was injected
  • a faint, red rash
  • swollen throat glands
  • a low temperature
  • feeling unsettled and sleepy.

Speak to your local doctor if you have any questions or concerns about the polio vaccine.

Last updated Tuesday 16th April 2024


This factsheet is provided for general information only. It does not constitute health advice and should not be used to diagnose or treat any health condition.

Please consult with your doctor or other health professional to make sure this information is right for you and/or your child.

The Sydney Children’s Hospitals Network does not accept responsibility for inaccuracies or omissions, the interpretation of the information, or for success or appropriateness of any treatment described in the factsheet.

© Sydney Children’s Hospitals Network 2024