Skip to main content

Guillain-Barre syndrome

Medically reviewed by Drugs.com. Last updated on Jun 14, 2022.

Overview

Guillain-Barre (gee-YAH-buh-RAY) syndrome is a rare disorder in which your body's immune system attacks your nerves. Weakness and tingling in your hands and feet are usually the first symptoms.

These sensations can quickly spread, eventually paralyzing your whole body. In its most severe form Guillain-Barre syndrome is a medical emergency. Most people with the condition must be hospitalized to receive treatment.

The exact cause of Guillain-Barre syndrome is unknown. But two-thirds of patients report symptoms of an infection in the six weeks preceding. These include a COVID-19, respiratory or a gastrointestinal infection or Zika virus.

There's no known cure for Guillain-Barre syndrome, but several treatments can ease symptoms and reduce the duration of the illness. Although most people recover completely from Guillain-Barre syndrome, some severe cases can be fatal. While recovery may take up to several years, most people are able to walk again six months after symptoms first started. Some people may have lasting effects from it, such as weakness, numbness or fatigue.

Nerve and damaged myelin sheath

The demyelinating form of Guillain-Barre syndrome destroys the protective covering of the peripheral nerves (myelin sheath), preventing the nerves from transmitting signals to the brain.

Symptoms

Guillain-Barre syndrome often begins with tingling and weakness starting in your feet and legs and spreading to your upper body and arms. Some people notice the first symptoms in the arms or face. As Guillain-Barre syndrome progresses, muscle weakness can turn into paralysis.

Signs and symptoms of Guillain-Barre syndrome may include:

People with Guillain-Barre syndrome usually experience their most significant weakness within two weeks after symptoms begin.

Types

Guillain-Barre syndrome has several forms. The main types are:

When to see a doctor

Call your doctor or health care provider if you have mild tingling in your toes or fingers that doesn't seem to be spreading or getting worse. Seek emergency medical help if you have any of these severe signs or symptoms:

Guillain-Barre syndrome is a serious condition that requires immediate hospitalization because it can worsen rapidly. The sooner appropriate treatment is started, the better the chance of a good outcome.

Causes

The exact cause of Guillain-Barre syndrome isn't known. The disorder usually appears days or weeks after a respiratory or digestive tract infection. Rarely, recent surgery or vaccination can trigger Guillain-Barre syndrome. There have been cases reported following infection with the Zika virus. Guillain-Barre syndrome may occur after infection with the COVID-19 virus. It's also a rare reaction in those who receive the Johnson & Johnson or AstraZeneca COVID-19 vaccine.

In Guillain-Barre syndrome, your immune system — which usually attacks only invading organisms — begins attacking the nerves. In AIDP, the nerves' protective covering (myelin sheath) is damaged. The damage prevents nerves from transmitting signals to your brain, causing weakness, numbness or paralysis.

Risk factors

Guillain-Barre syndrome can affect all age groups, but your risk increases as you age. It's also slightly more common in males than females.

Guillain-Barre syndrome may be triggered by:

Complications

Guillain-Barre syndrome affects your nerves. Because nerves control your movements and body functions, people with Guillain-Barre may experience:

Severe, early symptoms of Guillain-Barre syndrome significantly increase the risk of serious long-term complications. Rarely, death may occur from complications such as respiratory distress syndrome and heart attacks.

Diagnosis

Guillain-Barre syndrome can be difficult to diagnose in its earliest stages. Its signs and symptoms are similar to those of other neurological disorders and may vary from person to person.

Your doctor is likely to start with a medical history and thorough physical examination.

Your doctor may then recommend:

Treatment

There's no cure for Guillain-Barre syndrome. But two types of treatments can speed recovery and reduce the severity of the illness:

These treatments are equally effective. Mixing them or administering one after the other is no more effective than using either method alone.

You are also likely to be given medication to:

People with Guillain-Barre syndrome need physical help and therapy before and during recovery. Your care may include:

Recovery

Although some people can take months and even years to recover, most people with Guillain-Barre syndrome experience this general timeline:

Among adults recovering from Guillain-Barre syndrome:

Children, who rarely develop Guillain-Barre syndrome, generally recover more completely than adults.

Coping and support

A diagnosis of Guillain-Barre syndrome can be emotionally difficult. Although most people eventually recover fully, the condition is generally painful and requires hospitalization and months of rehabilitation. You must adjust to limited mobility and fatigue.

To manage the stress of recovery from Guillain-Barre syndrome, consider these suggestions:

Preparing for an appointment

You may be referred to a doctor who specializes in disorders of the brain and nervous system (neurologist).

What you can do

Questions to ask your doctor

In addition to the questions that you've prepared to ask your doctor, don't hesitate to ask other questions during your appointment.

What to expect from your doctor

Your doctor is likely to ask you a number of questions. Being ready to answer them may leave time to go over points you want to spend more time on. You may be asked:

© 1998-2024 Mayo Foundation for Medical Education and Research (MFMER). All rights reserved. Terms of use.

Learn more about Guillain-Barre syndrome

Treatment options

Care guides

Symptoms and treatments