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There are three known types of polioviruses (called 1,2, and 3), each causing a different strain of the disease and all are members of the viral family of enteroviruses (viruses that infect the gastrointestinal tract). Type 1 is the cause of epidemics and many cases of paralysis, which is the most severe manifestation of the infection. The virus is usually a harmless parasite of human beings. Some statistics quote one in 200 infections as leading to paralysis while others state that one in 1,000 cases reach the central nervous system (CNS). When it does reach the CNS, inflammation and destruction of the spinal cord motor cells (anterior horn cells) occurs, which prevents them from sending out impulses to muscles. This causes the muscles to become limp or soft and they cannot contract. This is referred to as flaccid paralysis and is the type found in polio. The extent of the paralysis depends on where the virus strikes and the number of cells that it destroys. Usually, some of the limb muscles are paralyzed; the abdominal muscles or muscles of the back may be paralyzed, affecting posture. The neck muscles may become too weak for the head to be lifted. Paralysis of the face muscles may cause the mouth to twist or the eyelids to droop. Life may be threatened if paralysis of the throat or of the breathing muscles occurs.

Man is the only natural host for polioviruses and it most commonly infects younger children, although older children and adults can be infected. Crowded living conditions and poor hygiene encourage the spread of poliovirus. Risk factors for this paralytic illness include older age, pregnancy, abnormalities of the immune system, recent tonsillectomy, and a recent episode of excessively strenuous exercise concurrent with the onset of the CNS phase.

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