Guillain-Barré syndrome

Guillain-Barré syndrome is a condition in which the body’s immune system attacks the nerves. Most of the time, the coating of the nerves, called the myelin sheath, is most affected, but sometimes the inside of the nerves, the axon, is also affected. Recovery from Guillain-Barré syndrome may take years, though the progression of the disease stops within 4 weeks.

It is a rare disorder affecting 1-2 peopler per 100,000, fairly consistently around the world. That means between 40-80 people are affected annually in NZ, though recent research suggests that number could be as high as 100 annually.

What causes Guillain-Barré syndrome?

In most cases, an individual who develops Guillain-Barré syndrome suffered from a bacterial or viral infection several weeks prior to the onset of symptoms. The most common infection appears to be a gastro infection caused by the bacteria Campylobacter jejuni. Doctors aren’t really sure what the connection is between Guillain-Barré syndrome and these infections.

Is Guillain-Barré syndrome serious?

Guillain-Barré syndrome can be serious. Although up to 90% of people who suffer Guillain-Barré syndrome recover completely, some are left with lasting disabilities. At its most severe, Guillain-Barré syndrome may require life support due to total paralysis.

Can I prevent Guillain-Barré syndrome?

There are so many indistinct causes for Guillain-Barré syndrome that it’s hard to know how to prevent, or even avoid, it. Potential triggers include illness, surgery, insect bites, and vaccinations.

How do I know if my child has Guillain-Barré syndrome?

Most symptoms of the syndrome develop gradually rather than all at once. Kids with Guillain-Barré syndrome may display the following symptoms:

  • Muscle weakness and paralysis affecting both sides of the body
  • Jerky, uncoordinated movements
  • Numbness
  • Muscle aches and pains
  • Odd sensations under the skin
  • Blurred vision
  • Dizziness
  • Breathing problems

How do I treat Guillain-Barré syndrome?

Treatment almost always involves hospitalisation to ensure swift reaction in case of complications. Treatment may include removing immune cells from the blood and intravenous delivery of gamma globulin containing healthy antibodies.

Should I call the doctor?

Call your doctor immediately if you suspect your child has Guillain-Barré syndrome. The condition may be life-threatening.

What you need to know about Guillain-Barré syndrome

  • Guillain-Barré syndrome is a condition in which the immune system tries to destroy the nerves.
  • Guillain-Barré syndrome may result in paralysis and permanent disability.
  • Most people with Guillain-Barré syndrome recover completely.
  • Recovery from the condition may take years.

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Written by Rebecca Stigall for Kidspot, New Zealand's parenting resource for family health. Sources include Better Health Channel, NSW Health and Health Insite.

Last revised: Friday, 12 September 2014

This article contains general information only and is not intended to replace advice from a qualified health professional.