What is Guillain-Barré Syndrome?
Guillain-Barré Syndrome (GBS) occurs when the immune system malfunctions and attacks the body’s own nerves — specifically the peripheral nerves, which are the nerves that connect the brain to the arms, legs, and internal organs. GBS damages the nerves that control muscle movement, sensations, pain, temperature, and touch.
Symptoms of Guillain-Barré Syndrome
- Muscle weakness
- Tingling or prickling
- Trouble swallowing
- Difficulty breathing
- Changes in blood pressure
- Abnormal heartbeat (cardiac arrhythmia)
- Abnormal reflexes
- Problems with balance or coordination
How Long Does GBS Last?
People with GBS experience sudden muscle weakness, paralysis, and numbness that rapidly gets worse for 2-3 weeks. Most people recover fully within a few months, but recovery sometimes takes several years.
About 30% of people who had GBS continue to have muscle weakness for at least 3 years after the first symptoms of GBS appear. People have also died of GBS, usually from difficulty breathing. About 3% suffer a relapse of muscle weakness or tingling many years later.
How Do the Symptoms of GBS Progress?
GBS usually starts with muscle weakness, tingling, or prickling sensations in the legs that travels to the upper body and gets worse. Over time, the symptoms spread to the arms, torso, and face. The weakness is usually accompanied by numbness or pain.
- Phase 1 — Symptoms progressively worsen during the first 4 weeks of GBS, although the peak is usually reached in 1-2 weeks.
- Phase 2 — Symptoms of Guillain-Barré syndrome stabilize or “plateau,” sometimes for a few weeks or several months.
- Phase 3 — Symptoms improve during the recovery phase, but some people with GBS never fully recover. They may suffer from excessive tiredness (fatigue), muscle weakness, or muscle pain.
What Causes Guillain-Barré Syndrome?
Two-thirds of people who get GBS are sick with a bacterial or viral infection, diarrheal illness, or a respiratory illness in the weeks before developing the condition. In very rare cases, GBS can also be caused by vaccines and immunizations, when the body over-reacts to ingredients in the shot. The most common illness associated with GBS is a food poisoning infection with Campylobacter jejuni bacteria.
Can the Flu Shot Cause Guillain-Barré Syndrome?
Yes. GBS was first linked to the flu shot in 1976, when the government responded to a few reports of swine flu by vaccinating about 45 million people. About 450 of them were diagnosed with GBS.
Investigators with the Centers for Disease Control (CDC) estimated an increased risk of “approximately 1 additional case of GBS for every 100,000 people who got the  swine flu vaccine.”
As for today’s flu shots, if there is any increased risk, the CDC says it is “about one in a million. Studies suggest that it is more likely that a person will get GBS after getting the flu than after vaccination.”
Other Names for Guillain-Barré Syndrome
- Acute infectious polyneuritis
- Acute inflammatory polyneuropathy
- Acute inflammatory demyelinating polyradiculoneuropathy (AIDP)
- Acute motor axonal neuropathy (AMAN)
- Acute motor-sensory axonal neuropathy (AMSAN)
- Landry-Guillain-Barre Syndrome
- Miller Fisher syndrome
How Common is GBS?
GBS is very rare. In the United States, there are about 3,000 to 6,000 cases of GBS per year. Worldwide, there are only between 6 and 40 cases of GBS per 1 million people. Almost all cases occur in people who do not have a history of GBS in their family or genetic risk-factors.
A diagnosis of GBS is suspected when a person has weakness or paralysis on both sides of the body that starts in the legs and spreads upwards, especially if they recently had a vaccine or illness. The tests to diagnose GBS may including a reflex test, lumbar puncture (“spinal tap”), nerve conduction velocity test, or electromyogram (EMG).
Unfortunately, there is no cure for GBS, but symptoms can be improved with treatments. These treatments involve intravenous immunoglobulin (IVIg) or a plasma exchange (PE) to stop the immune system from continuing to attack the peripheral nervous system, followed by physical therapy and rehabilitation. IVIg and PE are most effective within 7 to 14 days after the first symptoms of GBS appear.
Long-Term Outlook and Prognosis
The long-term outlook for people with GBS has a wide variation. Some people recover completely within a few weeks. Other people are permanently unable to walk 6 months after the onset of GBS. There are also people who died of GBS, usually due to breathing problems.
Guillain-Barré Syndrome Lawsuits & Settlements
In very rare cases, vaccines can cause GBS. In these instances, the National Vaccine Injury Compensation Program (VICP) may provide financial compensation to individuals who file a petition and are found to have been injured by a VICP-covered vaccine. Even in cases in which such a finding is not made, you may receive financial compensation through a settlement.
What Vaccines Can Cause Guillain-Barré Syndrome?
The Vaccine Injury Compensation Program will only pay compensation to people who developed GBS after receiving a vaccine that is covered by the program. These vaccines include: