Invisible Illnesses or disabilities affect millions of people all around the world, 125 million Americans, for example. But, why don’t we hear more about them and why are we still not educated in what they are and the effects they have on those affected?
They take the name of “invisible illness” precisely because they are not exactly visible to others. With that being said, let’s not judge the next time we see someone who apparently looks well, park their car in the handicap spot, shall we?
There is a wide range of diseases that fall under the “invisible” umbrella, and the symptoms vary from fatigue, debilitating pain, weakness, dizziness, brain fog, memory loss, cognitive dysfunctions, mental disorders, hearing and vision impairments, difficulty to learn, among many others.
These are chronic diseases, meaning that they have lasted for at least one year, and the symptoms can debilitate as much as limiting simple daily activities and for a patient to become bed bound. For most people who suffer from a chronic and invisible illness, their levels of activity and their lifestyle will rarely be the same as it once was.
Invisible illnesses can go from allergies and food intolerances to arthritis, chronic fatigue syndrome, migraines, fibromyalgia, lupus, multiple sclerosis, mental illnesses, diabetes, heart problems, Lyme disease and many others.
Here, let’s focus on two of those illnesses, Lupus and Lyme disease, to understand better how invisible and chronic illnesses work and how debilitating they can be. The only way to minimize the judgement that these patients suffer for not appearing ill is to create awareness of how difficult to live with and how debilitating these diseases are.
What is Lyme disease?
Table of Contents:
- What is Lyme disease?
- What is Lupus (Systemic Lupus Erythematosus)?
- Final Thoughts?
This is a disease caused by an infected tick, which through biting a human can transport the bacteria called borrelia, which will develop into Lyme disease.
Ticks are small insects, they cannot jump or fly, but they can climb on your legs if you are walking through grown grass, for example. You may or may not be infected with Lyme disease if an infected tick bites you, and it is not passed from a human to another.
Ticks will cling onto the skin to feed themselves on blood, the bacteria takes anywhere from 24 to 48 hours to infect a human, so if you manage to remove the tick before 24 hours, you are much less likely to have been infected, even if the tick was infected with the bacteria that would develop into Lyme disease.
The trouble is, because ticks are very small, their bites might not even hurt, so it is possible to be bitten and not even notice it, which is when Lyme disease has enough time to develop. In fact, most of the people infected with Lyme disease do not recall being bitten at all.
There are thousands of cases of Lyme disease in the United States, especially in the countryside, near forests and plantations. Anyone can catch the disease if one is not careful when exposed to these types of areas.
After being infected by a tick, the bacteria goes through the bloodstream and affects especially the skin, nerves, heart and joints.
What Are the Symptoms of Lyme disease?
The disease has three stages of symptoms that range from mild to severe, see below.
Stage 1: the characteristic of this stage is a rash reaction to the infection on the skin. After being infected, the rash can develop between 3 and 36 days after the tick-bite, which makes it harder to notice it in time in case the person did not feel the bite.
The most common symptom is a rash called erythema migrans, however it does not happen in every case. The rash spreads in a circular way, starting from the bite and it can grow for days. This type of rash is usually not followed by pain or itchiness, which makes it harder for you to notice if it is on your back, for example. Once the rash goes away, usually after 3 or 4 weeks, the infection is still there.
In about one third of Lyme disease cases, people will experience symptoms resembling a flu. With pain and aches throughout the body, headaches, tiredness, fever and chills. These symptoms disappear in a few days. The infection might stay and reach its second stage, or your immune system can rid itself from the infection.
Stage 2: when untreated, the second stage can develop itself even months after the tick-bite. The disease begins to spread around the body and symptoms can vary quite a bit.
Some people who are infected with the disease will experience brain issues; this is because the bacteria affects the nerves, especially facial nerves. Sometimes this will cause facial weakness or even paralysis of one side. Meningitis and encephalitis can also occur at this stage.
The untreated disease can also cause heart disturbances, such as loss of breath, chest pain, heart palpitations, dizziness, and even inflammation of the heart.
One of the most common symptoms of those who have chronic Lyme disease are joint problems, usually on the knees, and it can range from mild to severe pain and arthritis.
Stage 3: what characterizes this stage is that the disease becomes chronic. When the disease is persistent, a patient can have months with no symptoms at all, and then have episodes where one or several symptoms come back for days, weeks or months. Aside from nerve, heart, joint and skin problems, a person can develop memory issues, confusion, brain fog, difficulty with concentrating, mood imbalance, visual disturbances and debilitating tiredness.
How to Diagnose Lyme Disease?
Diagnosing Lyme disease while on the first stage of the infection can be pretty simple, a person will present the typical symptoms of the flu as well as the skin rash. When caught in the early stages, there is no need for further testing, and treatment can begin.
When we are dealing with the infection in stages two and three, the diagnose is harder, blood tests can help to find the disease, although they are not always helpful in providing a clear answer or diagnosis.
Another option is to have fluid from a skin or joint inflammation tested if the person has most of the symptoms of the disease. Diagnosing a chronic illness can be very tricky since there aren’t many specific tests available, however with the care of a good doctor they can be found and treated accordingly.
How to Treat Lyme Disease?
If caught early on, antibiotics will end the infection and free the patient from the bacteria. The specific medicine and the treatment time varies from case to case, but mostly, if in stage one, you can get rid of the disease completely and prevent it from growing into stages two and three.
As for the two latter stages, Lyme disease still has no cure or one specific treatment, like most invisible illnesses. Symptoms might disappear for months and then return for a long stay. Lyme disease can become extremely debilitating and constant medical care is necessary.
What is the Prognosis of Lyme Disease?
Well, when caught at stage one and treated with antibiotics, chances are you will be cured from the infection completely. When the infection developed into stages two and three you can experience symptoms varying from mild to severe.
Sometimes, when in stages two and three, a longer treatment with antibiotics may help the patient. However, for those who develop severe symptoms, a lot of research is still needed in order to find out how to beat the bacteria.
What is Lupus (Systemic Lupus Erythematosus)?
Systemic Lupus Erythematosus (SLE) is a chronic disease, which causes tiredness, joint pain, skin rashes and problems in some internal organs. Called Lupus, this disease can range from mild to severe, impacting on internal organs, depending on each case.
SLE or Lupus is an autoimmune type of disease. Moreover, it attacks precisely what protects the body from infections, bacteria and other diseases, the immune system. This causes the body to attack healthy cells and, therefore, affecting negatively on certain organs.
The disease affects more commonly women (present ten times more than in men) between the ages of 20 and 40. It can be genetically transferred; although the risk is not very high, (3 in 100 children will develop Lupus if it is in their families).
What Are the Symptoms of Lupus?
As well as with Lyme disease, the symptoms can vary on a wide range from case to case. Some of the most common symptoms are fatigue, fever and weight loss. See below other symptoms that may occur.
Mental disorders are attached with Lupus; this includes depression and anxiety more frequently. They might develop precisely because the person is struggling with a chronic, serious disease. Lupus can affect the brain and nervous system, causing headaches, migraines and epilepsy due to inflammation.
Inflammation on the lungs and heart might also occur, which can be identified through chest pains and pains on the sides of the chest. Anaemia is also common in patients who suffer from this disease.
Patients with Lupus may suffer from kidney problems, at least 1 in 3 people with the disease can develop a kidney inflammation, and this causes the kidneys to leak protein and blood into the patient’s urine. Kidney failure is an uncommon result of the disease, and the inflammation will not cause problems unless the patient has a severe case of Lupus.
Something called butterfly rash might develop, it is a rash spread throughout the cheeks and nose of the patient, and rashes might appear in areas exposed to sunlight. Sensitivity to sunlight is very common among people with Lupus, more than half of the people who suffer from the disease will have it. Hair loss may also be experienced, although usually in a small scale.
Most of those struggling with the chronic disease will experience some kind of joint pain and/or muscle pain. It can be mild and in just a few joints, or severe and around all the joints in the body, which can become debilitating.
How to Diagnose Lupus?
Even though they can turn out inconclusive, blood tests are the first thing you should do if symptoms of SLE arise. People who have the disease carry certain antibodies in their blood. However, healthy people without Lupus might also carry these antibodies, meaning that the way to diagnose Lupus is to have the symptoms and the antibodies together.
After being diagnosed with the disease, regular tests, scans and check-ups are necessary to keep an eye on your internal organs, anemia, and immune system.
The disease develops on a slow rhythm, which can be a reason for the diagnose to take a long time to “discover” as the symptoms might be associated with other problems.
In a mild case of Lupus, a patient will experience tiredness, joint pain and skin rashes. In this case, the disease is not life threatening.
In a moderate case of Lupus, a patient will experience the same symptoms, together with inflammation of internal organs.
In a severe case of Lupus, a patient can experience damage in internal organs such as the brain, heart, lungs or kidneys, and it can be life threatening.
Again, similar to Lyme disease, the symptoms might disappear for a while, and then the patient will experience a relapse, when symptoms become worse. This often alternates in different periods and timeframes, and research has not yet discovered the reasons behind these changes.
How to Treat Lupus?
First and foremost, Lupus doesn’t have a cure yet, however, there are treatments that can alleviate some of the symptoms of the disease. A specialist should supervise treatments as they may change according to the severity of the symptoms, relapses and remissions.
Steroids may help patients with severe symptoms, usually at a very low dose to minimize the side effects that steroids have, especially on the long run. Immunosupressants might also help with cases of severe symptoms.
For tiredness, joint pains and skin rashes, hydroxychloroquine has a positive effect. This medicine can take up to 12 weeks to show any effects; however, this has improved symptoms in the long-term.
Anti-inflammatory painkillers like ibuprofen or diclofenac can help with muscle and joint pains. Although these medications can cause problems in your stomach.
IMPORTANT: when dealing with chronic diseases, it is of utmost importance that a doctor/specialist recommends treatments that are tailored for each case individually.
What Is the Prognosis of Lupus?
The good news is that the disease and its treatments have advanced from what they used to be, and most people who suffer from Lupus are able to have a normal and active lifestyle. That is precisely because most cases are mild or moderate and present very little life threatening risks.
The most persistent symptoms are skin rashes and muscle/joint pains, which can be minimized with treatment. Lupus has a pattern of stabilizing in the course of 10 years, which means that if you didn’t develop a more serious case or severe damages during this time, it is unlikely that they will ever occur.
However, for some people who struggle with severe cases of Lupus, the disease can be life threatening. Although rare, inflammations of the kidneys and of the brain can cause kidney failure and severe brain impairments. Because the treatments for Lupus have advanced quite a lot, even cases of severe SLE can have their symptoms minimized and be able to maintain a more comfortable lifestyle.
Invisible Illnesses need to be taken as seriously as illnesses that leave the patient visibly ill. The backlash of struggling with a disease no one else seems to notice can be hard on those who suffer from it.
The only way to solve the how we perceive these illnesses is to get educated on the subject and create awareness for others. These types of diseases are just as hard to deal with as any other, even more so when you can’t get a day off because you simply don’t look sick, or your doctor sends you home for not believing in your symptoms when nothing shows up on your tests.
Hopefully, with medicine and technology advancing at their highest speed to date, so will the researches around chronic illnesses and their treatments, and soon enough, all of those struggling with them will be able to experience some relief.