Guillain-Barré Syndrome

What is Guillain-Barré syndrome?

Guillain-Barré syndrome (GBS) occurs when the immune system attacks the peripheral nervous system — the system of nerves that run though the body, outside the brain and spinal cord. It can cause muscle weakness, pain, changes in sensation (numbness or tingling), and sometimes even temporary paralysis of muscles in the legs, arms, face and chest.

Guillain-Barré usually develops quickly, over the course of just a few days. It usually starts in the feet then moves into the upper body. In severe cases, it can cause serious breathing problems that need emergency treatment. Children with Guillain-Barré often need to be admitted to the hospital for monitoring and care, but most children recover fully and are able to go back to their regular activities in a few weeks.

People of all ages can get Guillain-Barré syndrome, but it is extremely rare: It affects only about one in 100,000 people.

guillain barre medical illustration

Types of Guillain-Barré

There are a few types that affect children. These include:

  • Acute inflammatory demyelinating polyradiculoneuropathy (AIDP). This is the most common form of Guillain-Barré. In this type, the covering around peripheral nerve cells, called myelin, is damaged.
  • Acute motor axonal neuropathy (AMAN). This type of Guillain-Barré involves damage to nerve axons, rather than the myelin coverings around them. It is fairly rare in the United States, but is more common in other parts of the world including East Asia. Children with this type usually take longer to recover.
  • Miller Fisher syndrome. This is a very rare form of Guillain-Barré, especially in children. It primarily affects the nerves in the face, so the major symptom is weakness in the face muscles. It also causes decreased reflexes and balance problems.
  • Chronic inflammatory demyelinating polyradiculoneuropathy (CIDP). Some children who have Guillain-Barré have a relapse months or even years later. If that happens, your child may develop CIDP.

How we care for Guillain-Barré syndrome

At Boston Children’s Hospital, the specialists in our Neuromuscular Center are experienced in recognizing the signs of Guillain-Barré and providing excellent care and treatment. Our team works together with your family to help your child get back to normal life as quickly and fully as possible.