The Infections That Cause Guillain-Barré Syndrome


Guillain-Barré Syndrome (GBS) is a rare, but serious condition where the person’s immune system mistakenly attacks the peripheral nervous system. Up to half of people experience severe nerve pain and triggers have been linked mainly to infections. GBS is characterised by a rapid-onset change in sensation or pain and muscle weakness, usually starting in the hands and feet, which can lead to paralysis. The reason why the immune system attacks the peripheral nervous system is unclear, but links between certain viruses triggering GBS have been found.

Campylobacter Infection

Campylobacter is the most common cause of food poisoning in the UK and many other developed countries. Since laboratories were able to isolate campylobacter in stool specimens 20 years ago a link between it and GBS became apparent as people reported its onset after infection. More recently, stronger evidence has been able to support the association. Based on a study by McCarthy and Giesecke it’s estimated that 14% of people will develop GBS following a campylobacter infection.

The Link Between Zika Virus And GBS

The link between the Zika virus and GBS was first reported in 2014, and in 2016 the World Health Organisation concluded that it is a trigger. A 2016 study by Cao-Lormeau et al. found that 88% of patients with GBS had a history of viral infection 6 days before the onset. The results were compared against control patients and other infections and the Zika virus showed a stronger correlation as a trigger for GBS. Many countries with the Aedes mosquitoes, which carry the Zika virus, have also reported an unusual increase in GBS, adding to the strength of the theory that the two are linked.

Long-Term Treatment For GBS

Unfortunately, up to 20% of people left severely disabled after having GBS and others have persistent symptoms, such as poor balance, coordination and muscle weakness. Long-term treatment often involves physical therapy to strengthen muscles or re-learn movements, such as walking. An occupational therapist can help find ways to do daily tasks that you’ve always done but now find difficult. The Speech And Language Therapy (SALT) team may also be involved if you have problems with speech or swallowing and can help to strengthen these muscles or find alternatives that suit you, such as puréed foods. Counselling is helpful when GBS is life-changing, which can be overwhelming and difficult to deal with, so having a professional to talk to is beneficial.

To reduce your chance of developing GBS you should take precautions to avoid the infections that can trigger it. When it comes to food poisoning, make sure meat, especially poultry, is stored and cooked correctly to kill off campylobacter. If you’re in a country where Aedes mosquitoes are prominent, be sure to use insect repellent and wear clothes that fully cover your skin. Treatment can be a long battle, but it is possible. Using the affected muscles is the best way to get them working correctly again.


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