Guillain-Barre syndrome is a condition in which the body’s immune systems attack its nerves, often after infection with a respiratory bug or stomach flu.

Although acute cases are an emergency, most people recover completely, according to the Mayo Clinic.

Q: What are its symptoms?

A: While its first symptoms are usually weakness and numbness in the extremities, it can eventually paralyze the entire body, according to the Merck Manual of Medical Information. Symptoms are often worst in the first two or three weeks.

In 5% to 10% of cases, the muscles that control breathing become so weak that patients need to be put on a ventilator. In another 10% of cases, muscles that control swallowing are so weakened that patients need to be fed through a tube into the stomach.

Q: How is it treated?

A: Doctors may cleanse the blood, removing harmful antibodies, or give patients a treatment called immune globulin, with protective antibodies with donors, according to the Mayo Clinic.

Q: Do people recover?

A: Most patients improve slowly over several months, even without treatment, according to the Merck Manual. Early treatment can speed up recovery, allowing patients to improve within days or weeks. Although there’s no known cure, treatment can ease recovery, according to the Mayo Clinic.

About 30% of adults still suffer from some muscle weakness three years later, however. Fewer than 5% of patients die in the early stages of the disease.

Q: How common is it?

A: Guillain-Barre affects one or two out of every 100,000 people.

Q: What causes it?

A: Doctors don’t know the exact cause of Guillain-Barre, and some cases appear without any clear trigger, according to the Mayo Clinic. One of the most common triggers is campylobacter, a type of bacteria often found in undercooked chicken or other food. Guillain-Barre has also been triggered by surgery; the Epstein-Barr virus; Hodgkin’s disease; mononucleosis; HIV, the virus that causes AIDS; and rabies.

In an infamous outbreak in 1976, hundreds of people who received a swine flu vaccine developed Guillain-Barre, although scientists question whether the shots were really the cause. The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention has not seen any increase in Guillain-Barre related to vaccination against the H1N1 virus.

Q: How is the immune system involved?

A: The disease occurs when the immune system — which typically protects the body from illness by attacking viruses and other foreign invaders — instead attacks the myelin sheath, a coating that protects the nerves. Damage to this critical coating, which acts like insulation, interferes with the way that nerves send signals between the body and brain, according to the Mayo Clinic.

  • ginger

    I was diagnosied in 1996 with GBS and ended up in a wheel chair, I had 4 treatments of plasmaphersis and it was a life savior. I still experience extreme fatigue and I know when it is coming on and so I try to rest, there are days it takes everything out of me to function, My Dr. wants me to try steriod therapy when this happens, which I hate to because I have osteoporosis.
    I thought for years that once you have it, it was over and you recovered, but throughout the years, it seemed like my endurance for things I could do just was not there, I always tried but would suffer for it later. I sometimes thought maybe it was in my head the pain, but I have this deep muscle pain in my upper thighs, not sure of this is associated but it sure feels like what I experienced in the past.
    I just need to know do others still experience these symptoms?

  • m_govon

    Having had this I can tell you doctors know very little about this. I had a panel arguing over if I had this or something else they had not thought of yet all because I did not fit the text book profile. My tingling and paraliys was right side and then left side, from my shoulders down. I could feel everything but move nothing. I needed oxygen because my lungs did not function fully but did not need to be put on a ventalator. My did stop but it started up again on its own (only flatlined for 1/2 a min.) This worst part was when of all things by digestive system quit and I could not pass any gas out of my stomach. That was actually painful. I was very blessed and after only 1 week I started getting movement back. I spent 15 days in the hospital while they checked everything out. The rehab center would not take me because I did not have insurance and made to much for Medicaid. This does not care if you can afford it or not. I have lost my job because I could not go back to work in 12 weeks that FMLA provides for. I don’t know how I will survive this financially. I was able to walk using a walker when I left the hospital after alot of physical therapy while in the hospital. If you get this be very attentive to what the doctors do because they don’t want to make this diagnoisis as it means they just have to watch it run its course and most don’t have a lot of experience with this dyndrome. I was lucky and I see a PA who actually had treated this before and she had to lead the Doctor on this.

  • I liked the article its very interesting and informative. Keep up the great work.