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What is Guillain-Barre syndrome?

Guillain-Barre (ge-YAH buh-RA) Syndrome (GBS) is an inflammatory disorder in which your body's immune system attacks the nerves outside the brain and spinal cord (peripheral nerves) and, rarely, parts of the brain itself. Severe weakness and numbness in your legs and arms characterize GBS. Loss of feeling and movement (paralysis) may occur in your legs, arms, upper body and face.

GBS affects an estimated one to four in every 100,000 persons annually in the United States. It can strike any race at any age, but its incidence increases with age.

What causes Guillain-Barre syndrome?

GBS may occur within days or weeks after a viral infection such as influenza (flu) or diarrhea. It may be triggered by pregnancy or a medical procedure, such as a vaccination or minor surgery, or have no evident reason for developing. Because the cause of GBS is unknown, there's no way to prevent the disease from occurring.

What to expect?

In its most severe form, GBS is a medical emergency and may require hospitalization. Severe GBS may result in total paralysis, potentially dangerous fluctuations in heart rate and blood pressure and inability to breathe without respiratory assistance. The muscles you use for eye movement, speaking, chewing and swallowing also may become weak or paralyzed. People with severe GBS often need long-term rehabilitation to regain normal independence. GBS is life-threatening and fatal in up to 15 percent of cases, and risk of death is likely to be higher in older adults with other medical problems.

Most people recover from even the most severe cases of GBS, although some people continue to have some weakness. However, long-term impairment is possible, with approximately 20 percent of those with GBS having permanent disability, and about two-thirds having ongoing fatigue.