Guillain-Barre Syndrome: Causes, Symptoms, And Treatments

Guillain-Barre Syndrome is a rare disorder in which your body’s immune system attacks the nervous system. Weakness and tingling in the extremities are usually the first symptoms. These sensations can quickly spread, eventually paralyzing your whole body.

The illness can be the result of an infectious illness such as a respiratory infection or the stomach flu.

Currently, there is  no cure, but several treatments can ease symptoms and reduce the duration of the illness. Most people recover, though some may experience lingering effects, such as weakness, numbness or fatigue.



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Guillain-Barre Syndrome: Symptoms

It often begins with tingling and weakness starting in your feet and legs and spreading to your upper body and arms. In about half of people with the disorder, symptoms begin in the arms or face. As Guillain-Barre syndrome progresses, muscle weakness can evolve into paralysis.

Signs and symptoms of Guillain-Barre syndrome may include:

  • Prickling, pins and needles sensations in your fingers, toes, ankles or wrists
  • Weakness in your legs that spreads to your upper body
  • Unsteady walking or inability to walk or climb stairs
  • Difficulty with eye or facial movements, including speaking, chewing or swallowing
  • Severe pain that may feel achy or cramplike and may be worse at night
  • Difficulty with bladder control or bowel function
  • Rapid heart rate
  • Low or high blood pressure
  • Difficulty breathing

People with this syndrome usually experience their most significant weakness within two to four weeks after symptoms begin.


Guillain-Barre Syndrome: 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. Sometimes, recent surgery or immunization can trigger it. Recently, there have been a few cases reported following infection with the Zika virus.

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

Guillain-Barre Syndrome: Risk factors


This disease can affect all age groups.

It may be triggered by:

  • Infection with campylobacter, which is a type of bacteria often found in undercooked poultry
  • Influenza virus
  • Epstein-Barr virus
  • Zika virus
  • Hepatitis A, B, C and E
  • HIV, the virus that causes AIDS
  • pneumonia
  • Surgery
  • Hodgkin’s lymphoma
  • Sometimes, flu vaccinations or childhood vaccinations



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

  • Breathing difficulties. The weakness or paralysis can spread to the muscles that control your breathing, a potentially fatal complication. Up to 30 percent of people need temporary help from a machine to breathe when they’re hospitalized for treatment.
  • Residual numbness or other sensations. Most people recover completely or have only minor, residual weakness, numbness or tingling.
  • Heart and blood pressure problems. Blood pressure fluctuations and irregular heart rhythms (cardiac arrhythmias) are common side effects of Guillain-Barre syndrome.
  • Pain. Up to half of people experience severe nerve pain, which may be eased with medication.
  • Bowel and bladder function problems. Sluggish bowel function and urine retention may result from Guillain-Barre syndrome.
  • Blood clots. People who are immobile due to this illness are at risk of developing blood clots. Wear support stockings and take blood thinners.
  • Pressure sores. Being immobile also increases the risk of developing bedsores. Frequent repositioning may help avoid this problem.
  • Relapse. Around 3 percent of people suffer a relapse.


Guillain-Barre Syndrome: Treatments

There is no cure for Guillain-Barré syndrome. However, there are a few therapies that lessen the severity of the illness and accelerate the recovery in most patients.

While plasma exchange and high-dose immunoglobulin therapy are effective techniques, but immunoglobulin is easier to administer. Plasma exchange removes whole blood from the body, separates the red and white blood cells from the liquid portion of the blood, and then returns it to the body. This technique seems to reduce the severity and duration of the Guillain-Barré episode.


Keeping the patient’s body functioning during recovery of the nervous system is critical. This can sometimes require placing the patient on mechanical ventilatory assistance, a heart monitor, or other machines that assist body function. Of course, in the hospital, doctors at the same time, can also treat complications such as pneumonia or bed sores.


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