Guillain-Barré Syndrome

Guillain-Barré syndrome (GBS) is a rare autoimmune condition that causes the immune system to attack the nerves outside of the brain and spinal cord. GBS creates numbness, tingling, weakness, or paralysis in the legs, arms, breathing muscles and face. It can affect people of all ages.


The GBS-CIDP Foundation has designated UVA as a Center of Excellence, meaning we offer expert diagnosis and management of inflammatory neuropathies critical to patients. Learn more about this designation for GBS excellence.

Risk Factors for Guillain-Barré 

Guillain-Barré syndrome is more common in men and in those aged 15-35 years and 60-75 years old. Other factors that increase your chance of GBS include:

  • Recent gastrointestinal or respiratory infection by viruses or bacteria
  • Recent vaccination — especially influenza and meningococcal
  • History of lymphoma, systemic lupus erythematosus or HIV infection
  • Recent surgery 
  • The swine flu vaccine given from 1976-1977 was linked to excess cases of Guillain-Barré syndrome. (Since then, influenza virus vaccines have been associated with only a marginally increased risk of Guillain-Barré syndrome.)

Guillain-Barré Syndrome Symptoms

Initially, GBS causes:

  • Pain — lower back pain is the most common complaint
  • Progressive muscle weakness on both sides of the legs, arms and face
  • Prickly, tingling sensations, usually in the feet or hands
  • Loss of normal reflexes

Symptoms may develop over a period of hours, days or weeks. They vary in severity from minimal to total paralysis and respiratory weakness. Symptoms grow progressively worse, and most people experience the greatest weakness during the second or third week.

Related complications include:

  • Facial weakness
  • Blood pressure instability
  • Heart rate changes
  • Sweating abnormalities
  • Heart arrhythmias
  • Urinary/gastrointestinal dysfunction
  • Breathing difficulty

Most people fully recover, but others may have residual symptoms, permanent disabilities or die.

Testing for GBS

Tests may include:

  • Blood tests
  • Lumbar puncture to evaluate the cerebrospinal fluid that protects the brain and spinal cord
  • Nerve conduction and electromyography studies

GBS Treatments

Treatment aims to reduce the body’s autoimmune response and decrease complications that result from immobility.

If your symptoms rapidly become more severe and include respiratory failure, go to the hospital immediately.


During plasmapheresis, blood is removed from your body and passed through a machine that separates blood cells. The separated cells are then returned to your body with new plasma. This procedure may help shorten the course and severity of Guillain-Barré syndrome.

High-dose Immunoglobulin Therapy

Intravenous infusion with immunoglobulin (IVIG) may help reduce the severity of a Guillain-Barré attack. Immunoglobulins are proteins that are naturally produced by the body’s immune system. Learn more about infusion therapy.

Mechanical Ventilation

In some cases, muscles necessary for breathing become paralyzed. If this happens, you’ll need immediate emergency support from a mechanical ventilator.


Your doctor may advise over-the-counter or prescription pain relievers.


You need to see the experts in neurocritical care; go to an emergency room at once. 


Content was created using EBSCO’s Health Library. Edits to original content made by Rector and Visitors of the University of Virginia. This information is not a substitute for professional medical advice.