Guillain-Barré syndrome, sometimes known as GBS, is a rare but serious autoimmune disorder in which the immune system attacks healthy nerve cells in the peripheral nervous system (PNS).

GBS leads to weakness, numbness, and tingling. It can eventually result in paralysis.

The cause of Guillain-Barré syndrome is unknown. It’s typically triggered by an infectious illness, such as gastroenteritis (irritation of the stomach or intestines) or a lung infection.

Guillain-Barré syndrome is rare, affecting only about 1 in 100,000 people in the United States, according to the National Institute of Neurological Disorders and Stroke.

There’s no cure for the condition, but treatment can help reduce the severity of your symptoms and shorten the duration of the illness.

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There are multiple types of Guillain-Barré syndrome, but the most common form is acute inflammatory demyelinating polyradiculoneuropathy (AIDP). It results in damage to myelin, a material that forms a sheath around nerves.

Other types include Miller Fisher syndrome, which affects the cranial nerves.

In Guillain-Barré syndrome, your immune system attacks your PNS.

The nerves in your PNS connect your brain to the rest of your body and transmit signals to your muscles. If the nerves are damaged, your muscles will not be able to respond to the signals they receive from your brain.

The first symptom of Guillain-Barré syndrome is usually a tingling sensation in your toes, feet, and legs. The tingling spreads upward to your arms and fingers.

The symptoms can progress very rapidly. In some people, the disease can become serious in just a few hours.

The other symptoms of Guillain-Barré syndrome include:

The precise cause of Guillain-Barré syndrome is unknown. According to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC), about two-thirds of people with Guillain-Barré syndrome develop it soon after they’ve been sick with diarrhea or a respiratory infection.

This suggests that Guillain-Barré syndrome is triggered by an improper immune response to the previous illness.

The most common risk factor for Guillain-Barré syndrome is Campylobacter jejuni infection. Campylobacter is one of the most common bacterial causes of diarrhea in the United States. It’s often found in undercooked food, especially poultry.

The following infections have also been associated with Guillain-Barré syndrome:

Anyone can get Guillain-Barré syndrome, but it’s more common among adults over 50 years old.

In extremely rare cases, people can develop Guillain-Barré syndrome days or weeks after receiving a flu vaccine.

Occurrence varies by flu season. However, the CDC states that for every 1 million flu shots that are administered, 1 or 2 people tend to develop the condition.

The CDC and the Food and Drug Administration (FDA) have systems in place to:

  • monitor the safety of vaccines
  • detect early symptoms of side effects
  • record any cases of Guillain-Barré syndrome that develop following a vaccination

According to the CDC, research indicates that you’re more likely to develop Guillain-Barré syndrome from the flu itself rather than the flu vaccine.

Guillain-Barré syndrome has also been associated with the Johnson & Johnson COVID-19 vaccine.

According to an FDA statement, as of July 13, 2021, 100 people in the United States had reported GBS following vaccination. Around 12.5 million people have received the J&J vaccine overall. Data was taken from the Vaccine Adverse Event Reporting System.

This means there were about 8 cases of Guillain-Barré syndrome for every 1 million vaccines administered.

Prior to the statement, the FDA had issued a warning that there’s an increased risk of Guillain-Barré syndrome within 42 days of vaccination. Despite this increased risk, Guillain-Barré syndrome is still very rare overall. Learn more about Guillain-Barré syndrome and the J&J vaccine.

Guillain-Barré syndrome is difficult to diagnose at first. This is because the symptoms are very similar to those of other neurological disorders or conditions that affect the nervous system.

These disorders and conditions include botulism, meningitis, and heavy metal poisoning. Heavy metal poisoning may be caused by substances such as lead, mercury, and arsenic.

Your doctor will ask questions about specific symptoms and your medical history. Tell your doctor about any unusual symptoms and if you’ve had any recent or past illnesses or infections.

Tests that are used to help confirm a diagnosis are described below.

Spinal tap

A spinal tap (also known as a lumbar puncture) involves taking a small amount of cerebrospinal fluid from your lower back. The cerebrospinal fluid is then tested to detect protein levels.

People with Guillain-Barré syndrome typically have higher-than-normal levels of protein in their cerebrospinal fluid.

Electromyography (EMG)

An electromyography (EMG) is a nerve function test. It reads electrical activity from the muscles to help your doctor learn if your muscle weakness is caused by nerve damage or muscle damage.

Nerve conduction velocity tests

Nerve conduction velocity tests may be used to test how well your nerves and muscles respond to small electrical pulses.

Guillain-Barré syndrome is an autoimmune inflammatory process that’s self-limiting, meaning it will resolve on its own.

However, anyone with this condition should be admitted to a hospital for close observation. The symptoms can quickly worsen and can be fatal if left untreated.

In severe cases, people with Guillain-Barré syndrome can develop full-body paralysis. The condition can be life threatening if paralysis affects the diaphragm or chest muscles, preventing proper breathing.

The goal of treatment is to lessen the severity of the immune attack and support your body functions, such as lung function, while your nervous system recovers.

Treatments may include plasmapheresis and intravenous immunoglobulin (IVIG).

Plasmapheresis (plasma exchange)

The immune system produces antibodies, which are proteins that normally attack bacteria, viruses, and other harmful foreign substances. Guillain-Barré syndrome occurs when your immune system mistakenly makes antibodies that attack healthy nerves of your nervous system.

The goal of plasmapheresis is to remove the antibodies attacking the nerves from your blood.

During this procedure, a machine is used to remove blood from your body. This machine removes the antibodies from your blood and then returns the blood to your body.

Intravenous immunoglobulin (IVIG)

Immunoglobulin contains normal, healthy donor antibodies. High doses of immunoglobulin can help block the antibodies causing Guillain-Barré syndrome.

Plasmapheresis and intravenous immunoglobulin (IVIG) are equally effective. It’s up to you and your doctor to decide which treatment is best.

Other treatments

You may be given medication to relieve pain and prevent blood clots while you’re immobile.

You’ll likely receive occupational and physical therapy too. During the acute phase of the illness, caregivers will manually move your arms and legs to keep them flexible.

Therapists will work with you on muscle strengthening and a range of activities of daily living (ADLs) once you begin to recover. This can include personal care activities, such as getting dressed.

The weakness and paralysis that occurs with Guillain-Barré syndrome can affect multiple parts of your body.

Complications may include difficulty breathing when the paralysis or weakness spreads to muscles that control breathing. If this occurs, you may need a respirator to help you breathe.

Complications can also include:

  • lingering weakness, numbness, or other odd sensations even after recovery
  • heart or blood pressure problems
  • pain
  • slow bowel or bladder function
  • blood clots and bedsores due to paralysis

Blood clots and bedsores that result from being immobilized can be reduced.

Blood thinners and compression stockings may minimize clotting. Frequent repositioning of your body relieves prolonged body pressure that leads to bedsores.

The recovery period for Guillain-Barré syndrome can be long, but most people recover.

In general, symptoms will get worse for 2 to 4 weeks before they stabilize. Recovery can then take anywhere from a few weeks to a few years, but most people recover in 6 to 12 months.

About 80 percent of people affected by Guillain-Barré syndrome can walk independently at 6 months, and 60 percent recover their regular muscle strength in 1 year.

For some, recovery takes longer.

Around 30 percent of people affected by Guillain-Barré syndrome still experience some weakness after 3 years. About 3 percent will experience a relapse of their symptoms, such as weakness and tingling, even years after the original event.

In rare cases, the condition can be life threatening, especially if you do not get treatment. Factors that may lead to a worse outcome include:

  • advanced age
  • severe or rapidly progressing illness
  • delay of treatment, which can result in more nerve damage
  • prolonged use of a respirator, which can predispose you to bacterial pneumonia

In addition to the physical symptoms, people with Guillain-Barré syndrome may experience emotional difficulties. It can be challenging to adjust to limited mobility and an increased dependence on others. Talking with a therapist may help.