Guillain-Barré Syndrome

What is Guillain-Barré syndrome (GBS)?

Guillain-Barré syndrome (GBS) (say “ghee-YAN bah-RAY”) is a rare nervous system disorder that results from nerve damage caused by the body’s own defenses (immune system), usually in response to an infection or other illness. GBS causes muscle weakness, loss of reflexes, and numbness or tingling in the arms, legs, face, and other parts of the body. It may progress to complete paralysis.

About 1 or 2 people out of 100,000 develop GBS each year.1 Although GBS can be life-threatening, most people recover with few lasting problems.

What causes Guillain-Barré syndrome?

The exact cause of GBS is not known. But it is believed that the disorder is an autoimmune disease, a condition in which the immune system attacks its own tissues as though they were foreign substances. Nerves are damaged by the immune system, usually in response to a viral or bacterial infection or other illness. As the immune system produces antibodies to fight the infection or illness, it may also produce antibodies that attack the covering (myelin sheath) of the peripheral nerves and sometimes the nerve fibers (axons). The resulting nerve damage leads to tingling and numbing sensations, muscle weakness, and paralysis.

Although it is not known exactly what triggers the body’s response, GBS most often develops after a respiratory or gastrointestinal infection. A variety of infections may be associated with GBS. Those that have been most commonly linked to the disease are Campylobacter jejuni (a bacterial infection that affects the intestinal tract), mycoplasma (a type of bacteria that can cause pneumonia), cytomegalovirus (CMV), Epstein-Barr virus (EBV), and varicella-zoster virus, the virus that causes chickenpox and shingles.

The 1976 swine flu vaccine was linked to GBS. Since then, researchers have studied the link between any flu vaccine and GBS. Some studies show a very small increase in the risk of GBS after having the flu vaccine. But getting the flu is much more of a health risk than is the chance that you could get GBS after having the flu vaccine.23

What are the symptoms?

Generally, symptoms of GBS include:

  • Numbness or tingling in the hands and feet and occasionally around the mouth and lips.
  • Muscle weakness on both sides of the body in the legs, arms, and face.
  • Difficulty speaking, chewing, and swallowing.
  • Inability to move the eyes.
  • Back pain.

Symptoms usually start with numbness or tingling in the fingers and toes, followed by weakness in the leg and arm muscles that develops over a period of days to weeks. Hospital treatment is often needed during this time. The progression of weakness usually does not last longer than about 4 weeks. The weakness then stabilizes and gradually improves within the following few months.

For More Information . . .

You can find out more about Guillain-Barre Syndrome by contacting the following organizations:

National Institute of Neurological Disorders and Stroke, NIH, HHS
Phone: (301) 496-5751
Internet Address:

National Organization for Rare Disorders
Phone: (800) 999-6673
Internet Address:

Guillain-Barre Syndrome Foundation International
Phone: (610) 667-0131
Internet Address:

This information was abstracted from fact sheets developed by the Office on Women’s Health

in the Department of Health and Human Services and the National Institute of Neurological Disorders and Stroke.

All material contained in the FAQs is free of copyright restrictions, and may be copied, reproduced, or duplicated without permission of the Office on Women’s Health in the Department of Health and Human Services; citation of the source is appreciated.


Author: H. Sandra Chevalier-Batik

I started the Inconvenient Woman Blog in 2007, and am the product of a long line of inconvenient women. The matriarchal line is French-Canadian, Roman Catholic, with a very feisty Irish great-grandmother thrown in for sheer bloody mindedness. I am a research analyst and author who has made her living studying technical data, and developing articles, training materials, books and web content. Tracking through statistical data, and oblique cross-references to find the relevant connections that identifies a problem, or explains a path of action, is my passion. I love clearly delineating the magic questions of knowledge: Who, What, Why, When, Where and for How Much, Paid to Whom. My life lessons: listen carefully, question with boldness, and personally verify the answers. I look at America through the appreciative eyes of an immigrant, and an amateur historian; the popular and political culture is a ceaseless fascination. I have no impressive initials after my name. I’m merely an observer and a chronicler, an inconvenient woman who asks questions, and sometimes encourages others to look at things differently.