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 Syndrome: healthy myelin and damaged myelin.  

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.

What are the symptoms of Guillain-Barré syndrome?

Each child may have different symptoms, but some of the most common symptoms include:

  • weakness or pain in the legs and arms (usually begins in the legs)
  • problems walking
  • pain, numbness, or tingling in the toes and fingers
  • feeling lightheaded or dizzy
  • weakness in the face
  • breathing problems (in severe cases)

If your child is having trouble walking, call your primary care provider right away or go to an emergency room.

What are the causes of Guillain-Barré syndrome?

Doctors don’t completely understand the causes of Guillain-Barré. In some cases, it occurs after a mild viral or bacterial infection. Occasionally, it can occur after an immunization. Often, however, there is no known cause.

Experts believe that the reason why infections can trigger autoimmune conditions such as Guillain-Barré is that when the immune system attacks the invading viruses or bacteria, it can sometimes also attack healthy tissue.

Although some vaccines have been linked with Guillain-Barré in the past, this is extremely rare. If you have any concerns about vaccines, talk with your child’s pediatrician. You may also find this Q&A from the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) helpful.

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.