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What is Guillain-Barré syndrome?

A woman wearing a mask and holding up her sleeve to get a vaccine.

Guillain-Barré syndrome (GBS) is an extremely rare condition that makes muscles weak and can cause paralysis.

The disorder made the news when a very small number of people developed GBS after getting the Johnson & Johnson (J&J) COVID-19 vaccine.

As COVID-19 cases rise, it can be worrisome to hear about potential side effects if you haven't gotten a vaccine yet.

Fortunately, the risk of GBS is extremely small. Most people recover fully from even the most serious GBS cases. And there are alternative vaccines to the J&J vaccine to consider.

A rare risk

After 12.5 million J&J doses, there were only 100 reports of people developing GBS. Of those cases, 95 were serious and required hospitalization. There was one death. That patient already had serious health issues.

While it is not certain that GBS is a side effect of the vaccine, the Food and Drug Administration has issued a safety warning.

This is not the first time GBS has been linked to vaccines. In rare cases, shots for the flu or shingles have triggered GBS. The reasons why are not known.

What is GBS?

Guillain-Barré (pronounced "gee-yan buh-rey") syndrome is an extremely rare neurological disorder. Only about 3,000 to 6,000 people in the U.S. develop it each year.

The exact cause of GBS is unknown. But it often occurs a few days or weeks after a respiratory or gastrointestinal viral infection or, occasionally, after surgery.

Researchers believe the immune system launches an attack on healthy cells because their chemicals resemble those of infecting bacteria and viruses. This causes muscles to weaken and sometimes become paralyzed, which can be life threatening.

Fortunately, with treatment, 70% of people fully recover from GBS.

Should I get a COVID-19 vaccine?

The answer is definitely yes.

The Delta variant of the coronavirus is highly contagious and makes up the majority of COVID-19 cases in the U.S. Nearly all who have been hospitalized or died have not been vaccinated.

The J&J vaccine's biggest benefit is protection against developing a severe coronavirus infection. Also, the vaccine is widely available and requires only one dose.

If you have a history of GBS or are at risk, other COVID-19 vaccines are available.

GBS is even more rarely associated with the Moderna and Pfizer vaccines. Both also are very good at protecting you from the coronavirus.

It can be alarming to hear news about potential side effects of a COVID-19 vaccine. It helps, however, to know the facts about vaccination. You can then make an informed decision with your doctor about what is right for you.

To learn more about GBS, visit the National Institutes of Health.

Learn more about COVID-19 at the Coronavirus topic center.

Reviewed 11/13/2021

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