Guillain-Barré Syndrome

Medically reviewed by Debra Sullivan, PhD, MSN, RN, CNE, COI

What is Guillain-Barré syndrome?

Guillain-Barré syndrome is a rare but serious autoimmune disorder in which the immune system attacks healthy nerve cells in your peripheral nervous system.

This leads to weakness, numbness, and tingling. It can eventually cause paralysis.

The cause of this condition is unknown, but it’s typically triggered by an infectious illness, such as the stomach flu or a lung infection.

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

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

There are multiple types of Guillain-Barré, but the most common form is acute inflammatory demyelinating polyradiculoneuropathy (AIDP). It results in damage to myelin.

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

What causes Guillain-Barré syndrome?
The precise cause of Guillain-Barré is unknown.

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

This suggests that the disorder may be triggered by an improper immune response to the previous illness. Learn more about autoimmune disease here.

Campylobacter jejuni infection has been associated with Guillain-Barré. Campylobacter is one of the most common bacterial causes of diarrhea in the United States. It’s also the most common risk factor for Guillain-Barré.

Campylobacter is often found in undercooked food, especially poultry.

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

cytomegalovirus, which is a strain of the herpes virus
Epstein-Barr virus infection, or mononucleosis
mycoplasma pneumonia, which is an atypical pneumonia caused by bacteria-like organisms
Anyone can get Guillain-Barré, but it’s more common among older adults.

In extremely rare cases, people can develop the disorder days or weeks after receiving a vaccination.

The CDC and the U.S. Food and Drug Administration (FDA) have systems in place to monitor the safety of vaccines, detect early warning signs of side effects, and record any cases of Guillain-Barré that develop following a vaccination.

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