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Guillain-Barre Syndrome

Medically reviewed by Last updated on Feb 6, 2023.

What is Guillain-Barre syndrome (GBS)?

GBS is a rare condition that causes damage to nerves that control movement and your sense of touch. You may have mild symptoms, such as muscle weakness. You may have more serious symptoms, such as paralysis. GBS happens because your immune system attacks nerve cells by mistake. GBS can happen at any age, but it is more common in adults.

What causes or increases my risk for GBS?

The cause of GBS is not known. You may get GBS after you have a cold or the flu, or after surgery. Vaccines may cause GBS, but this is very rare. The flu vaccine is the most common vaccine associated with GBS. Your risk is also increased if you have HIV or become infected with the Zika virus. You cannot catch GBS by being around someone who has it.

What are the signs and symptoms of GBS?

Symptoms may begin quickly, be severe or life-threatening, and may take months to go away. You may have more than one of the following:

  • Tingling or loss of feeling in parts of your body
  • Muscle pain or difficulty moving your legs, arm, or face
  • Constipation or difficulty controlling your urine or bowel movements
  • Blurred vision or dizziness
  • Heart palpitations (your heart pounds or misses beats)
  • Dusky, pale, or blue fingernails
  • Drooling, trouble swallowing, or shortness of breath
  • Fainting or difficulty thinking
  • Sudden paralysis

How is GBS diagnosed?

Your healthcare provider will examine you and ask about other health conditions you may have. He or she will check your reflexes and how your pupils react to light. Your memory, hand grasp, and balance may also be checked.

  • Blood and urine samples may be sent to a lab to help find the cause of your symptoms. They may also be used to make sure organs, such as your liver and kidneys, are working correctly.
  • A lumbar puncture (spinal tap) is a procedure to take a sample of fluid from around your spinal cord. The fluid will be sent to a lab to be tested for cause of your symptoms.
  • An electromyography (EMG) test measures the electrical activity of your muscles at rest and with movement.
  • Nerve conduction studies may be used to measure how your nerves respond to stimulation. Electrodes (wires) are placed on affected areas of your body. They send electrical currents into the nerve to see how quickly it responds.

How is GBS treated?

There is no cure for GBS. Treatment will depend on your symptoms:

  • Medicines may be given to decrease nerve damage, thin your blood, or control pain. You may also need medicine to help your heart beat more regularly.
  • Plasmapheresis is a procedure to remove antibodies from your blood. Antibodies attack your nerve cells. Some of your blood will be removed through an IV. The blood is then put in a machine that spins and separates the red blood cells from the antibodies. The cleaned blood is then put back in your body through the IV.
  • A plasma exchange is a procedure that removes part of the blood, called plasma. Plasma is then replaced with other fluids.

What can I do to manage my symptoms?

  • Rest when needed. Slowly start to do more each day. Return to your daily activities as directed.
  • Take deep breaths and cough 10 times each hour. This will decrease your risk for a lung infection. Take a deep breath and hold it for as long as you can. Let the air out and then cough strongly. Deep breaths help open your airway. You may be given an incentive spirometer to help you take deep breaths. Put the plastic piece in your mouth and take a slow, deep breath, then let the air out and cough. Repeat these steps 10 times every hour.
  • Apply heat. Heat helps decrease pain and muscle spasms. Keep the heat setting on low to prevent burns. Apply heat on the area for 20 to 30 minutes every 2 hours for as many days as directed.

What can I do to manage GBS?

You can help build your strength and stay safe while you recover. This can help prevent the need for treatment in the hospital or an emergency department.

  • Go to physical, occupational, and speech therapy as directed. A physical therapist teaches you exercises to help improve movement and strength, and to decrease pain. An occupational therapist teaches you skills to help with your daily activities. You may need to work with a speech therapist if you are having trouble swallowing. The therapist can teach you exercises to help improve muscle movement. You may also be taught ways to swallow more easily.
  • Make your home safe. You may need ramps and side rails to help you move around safely in your home. You may have temporary trouble feeling heat and cold. Have someone else test the water before you bathe to keep from burning yourself.
  • Drink liquids as directed. Liquids can help prevent constipation. Ask how much liquid to drink each day and which liquids are best for you.
  • Eat healthy foods. Healthy foods can help you build your strength. Healthy foods include fruits, vegetables, whole-grain breads, low-fat dairy products, beans, lean meats, and fish. Ask if you need to be on a special diet. A dietitian can help you plan meals with foods that are easier or safer for you to swallow.
  • Do not smoke. Nicotine and other chemicals in cigarettes and cigars can cause lung damage. Ask your healthcare provider for information if you currently smoke and need help to quit. E-cigarettes or smokeless tobacco still contain nicotine. Talk to your healthcare provider before you use these products.
  • Ask about vaccines. You may have an increased risk of problems after you get certain vaccines. Ask your healthcare provider before you get immunizations to help prevent the flu or pneumonia.

When should I seek immediate care?

  • You cannot swallow.
  • You faint or cannot think clearly.
  • You have shortness of breath.
  • You are not able to move a part of your body.

When should I contact my healthcare provider?

  • You have a fever.
  • You have new or worsening skin sores.
  • You have vision changes.
  • You have swollen or tender calves.
  • You cannot have a bowel movement, or it becomes more difficult.
  • You have skin redness, a rash, or swelling.
  • You have questions or concerns about your condition or care.

Care Agreement

You have the right to help plan your care. Learn about your health condition and how it may be treated. Discuss treatment options with your healthcare providers to decide what care you want to receive. You always have the right to refuse treatment. The above information is an educational aid only. It is not intended as medical advice for individual conditions or treatments. Talk to your doctor, nurse or pharmacist before following any medical regimen to see if it is safe and effective for you.

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