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What You Should Know About Your Risk for Guillain-Barré Syndrome

From diabetes to vitamin deficiencies to infections, a lot of different conditions can cause numbness, tingling or muscle weakness in your feet or legs. A rare but serious cause could be Guillain-Barré syndrome (GBS). Jason Brown, MD, the chief medical officer of Banner Pharmacy Services, answered our questions about the syndrome.

What is Guillain-Barré syndrome?

GBS is a rare neurological disorder where your body’s immune system attacks your nerves. It affects 3,000 to 6,000 people per year in the U.S and symptoms can range from mild to severe. People with Guillain Barré syndrome who have mild symptoms may notice feelings of tingling or weakness that last for a short time. Severe cases of GBS can cause paralysis. Most people recover from GBS, even if they have a severe case.

GBS can affect anyone of any age, but it is most common in men and adults over age 50.

What causes Guillain-Barré syndrome?

We don’t know what causes GBS. “Some scientists believe Guillain-Barré occurs because your body is trying to fight off an infection and mistakes your nerve cells for a virus or bacteria,” Dr. Brown said.

GBS is not contagious. Most people with GBS had an infection – diarrhea or a respiratory illness – within several weeks of developing symptoms. According to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC), infection from the bacteria Campylobacter jejuni, which causes diarrhea, might be responsible for 40% of GBS cases in the U.S. Viral infections like the flu, the Zika virus, hepatitis, HIV, and trauma may also trigger GBS.

There have been some reports of people developing GBS after being infected with COVID-19. Scientists believe this may occur because COVID-19 releases inflammatory proteins that put people at risk for developing GBS.

In rare cases, people may develop GBS after receiving certain vaccines, including certain flu vaccines or the shingles vaccine (Shingrix). For example, the CDC notes that there is a chance of one to two additional cases of GBS per million flu vaccine doses administered. However, studies suggest it’s more likely a person will get GBS from the flu compared to getting it after the flu vaccine.

The FDA recently announced that based on an analysis of Vaccine Adverse Event Reporting System (VAERS) data, there have been 100 preliminary reports of GBS following vaccination with the Janssen COVID-19 vaccine after approximately 12.5 million doses were administered. (No similar link has been found with the Moderna or Pfizer COVID-19 vaccines.) The benefits of vaccination continue to outweigh these risks.

What are the signs and symptoms of Guillain-Barré syndrome?

Symptoms of GBS usually begin as tingling, weakness and numbness in your feet and legs at first. This sensation can spread to your entire body in hours, days or weeks. Some people cannot use certain muscles at all, and some may become paralyzed. However, most patients that become paralyzed will be able to walk six months later.

Some people experience long-term symptoms such as fatigue, numbness and weakness.

How dangerous is Guillain-Barré syndrome?

While most people recover, GBS can be serious. In severe cases, people can have difficulty breathing and may need to be placed on a machine to help them breathe. And about 4 to 7 percent of people with GBS die.

How can Guillain-Barré syndrome be treated?

Some therapies can help alleviate GBS symptoms and shorten recovery time. “The two mainstays of treatment are plasma exchange and intravenous immunoglobulin therapy (IVIG),” Dr. Brown said.

Plasma exchange removes the harmful antibodies your body has created from the liquid part of the blood (plasma) and returns healthy plasma back to you. The exchange can help make GBS less severe and shorten its duration.

Immunoglobulin therapy can help prevent the harmful antibodies from attacking your body.

The bottom line

Guillain-Barré syndrome is a rare but serious neurological condition that causes numbness, tingling and weakness, and often causes paralysis as it gets worse. Most people recover. You should seek emergency help if you develop tinging in your feet and toes that spreads into your body.

Learn more about neurological conditions:

Infectious Disease Neurosciences COVID-19