Skip directly to search Skip directly to A to Z list Skip directly to navigation Skip directly to page options Skip directly to site content

Guillain-Barré syndrome and Flu Vaccine

Questions & Answers

What is Guillain-Barré syndrome (GBS)?

Guillain-Barré syndrome (GBS) is a rare disorder in which a person’s own immune system damages their nerve cells, causing muscle weakness and sometimes paralysis. GBS can cause symptoms that usually last for a few weeks. Most people recover fully from GBS, but some people have long-term nerve damage. In very rare cases, people have died of GBS, usually from difficulty breathing. In the United States, an estimated 3,000 to 6,000 people develop GBS each year.

What causes GBS?

The exact cause of GBS is unknown, but about two-thirds of people who develop GBS experience symptoms several days or weeks after they have been sick with diarrhea or a respiratory illness. Infection with the bacterium Campylobacter jejuni is one of the most common risk factors for GBS. People also can develop GBS after having the flu or other infections (such as cytomegalovirus and Epstein Barr virus). On very rare occasions, they may develop GBS in the days or weeks after getting a vaccination.

Who is at risk for developing GBS?

Anyone can develop GBS; however, it is more common among older adults. The incidence of GBS increases with age, and people older than 50 years are at greatest risk for developing GBS.

 Top of Page

How common is GBS? How common is it among people who have been vaccinated against flu?

The background rate for GBS in the Unites States is about 80 to 160 cases of GBS each week, regardless of vaccination. The data on the association between GBS and seasonal flu vaccination are variable and inconsistent across flu seasons. If there is an increased risk of GBS following flu vaccination it is small, on the order of one to two additional GBS cases per million doses of flu vaccine administered.

How do public health authorities investigate cases of GBS?

CDC and the Food and Drug Administration (FDA) closely monitor the safety of vaccines approved for use in the United States. CDC uses two primary systems to monitor the safety of flu vaccines:

  1. Vaccine Adverse Event Reporting System (VAERS): an early warning system that helps CDC and FDA monitor problems following vaccination. Anyone can report possible vaccine side effects to VAERS. Reports are welcome from all concerned individuals: for example, patients, parents, health care providers, pharmacists and vaccine manufacturers. Generally, VAERS reports cannot determine if an adverse event was caused by a vaccine, but these reports can help determine if further investigations are needed.
  1. Vaccine Safety Datalink (VSD): A collaboration between CDC and eight integrated health care organizations which conducts ongoing vaccine safety monitoring and research.

Learn more about vaccine safety monitoring at Vaccine Safety Monitoring at CDC.

 Top of Page