What is polio?

Polio is a disease caused by a virus that affects the nervous system and is mainly spread by person-to-person contact. Polio can also be spread by eating raw or undercooked food or drinking water or other drinks that are contaminated with the feces of an infected person.

Most people with polio do not feel sick. Some people have only minor symptoms, such as fever, tiredness, nausea, headache, nasal congestion, sore throat, cough, stiffness in the neck and back, and pain in the arms and legs. Most people recover completely. In rare cases, polio infection causes permanent loss of muscle function (paralysis) in the arms or legs (usually the legs); death can occur if there is loss of function of the muscles used for breathing or infection of the brain.

From the late 1940s to the early 1950s, polio crippled around 35,000 people each year in the United States, making it one of the most feared diseases of the 20th century. By 1979, the United States was polio free. For more information about polio and how it was eliminated in the United States, see A Polio-Free US Thanks to Vaccine Efforts.

The Global Polio Eradication Initiative was launched in 1988, with CDC as a leading member. Substantial progress has been made in recent years, and only three countries remain where polio has never been stopped: Afghanistan, Nigeria, and Pakistan. The affected areas in these three countries have become smaller. However, polio has been exported to countries that have previously been polio-free. Until polio is stopped everywhere, even polio-free countries are at risk for outbreaks.

Who is at risk?

Travelers going to certain parts of Africa and Asia may be at risk for polio. Everyone should be up-to-date with their routine polio vaccination series. In addition, a one-time adult polio vaccine booster dose is recommended for previously vaccinated travelers to certain countries. See individual destination pages for vaccine recommendation information.

What can travelers do to prevent polio?

Get the polio vaccine:

  • Ask your doctor or nurse to find out if you are up-to-date with your polio vaccination and whether you need a booster dose before traveling. Even if you were vaccinated as a child or have been sick with polio before, you may need a booster dose to make sure that you are protected. See individual destination pages for vaccine recommendation information.
woman getting vaccination
  • Make sure children are vaccinated.

Eat safe foods and drink safe beverages:

Follow the Food and Water Safety tips to avoid exposure to any food and drinks that could be contaminated by the feces of a person infected with polio.

Practice hygiene and cleanliness:

  • Wash your hands often.
  • If soap and water aren’t available, clean hands with hand sanitizer (containing at least 60% alcohol).
  • Don’t touch your eyes, nose, or mouth. If you need to touch your face, make sure your hands are clean.
  • Cover your mouth and nose with a tissue or your sleeve (not your hands) when coughing or sneezing.
  • Try to avoid close contact with other people, such as kissing, hugging, or sharing eating utensils or cups with people who are sick.

If you feel sick and think you may have polio:

  • Talk to your doctor or nurse if you feel seriously ill, especially if you have a fever or weakness of a limb.
  • Avoid contact with other people while you are sick.
    • Do not prepare or serve food to other people.

Traveler Information

Clinician Information