A chronic illness is a mental or physical disorder that lasts for a long time, perhaps even a lifetime.
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What Is Chronic Illness?
Chronic (KRAH-nik) illnesses are different from illnesses such as flu or chicken pox, where a person becomes sick for a short time and then returns to health. These short-term illnesses are called acute (a-KYOOT) illnesses. Unlike people with acute illnesses, people with chronic illnesses usually don't return to completely normal health. The illness does not go away, even when the symptoms are controlled.
What Are Different Types of Chronic Illness?
There are many types of illnesses that are chronic, each with its own symptoms, causes, and course. Some chronic illnesses affect people of any age or ethnic background, while others are more likely to appear in a particular age or ethnic group. Some chronic illnesses are present at birth, while others develop later in life. Chronic illnesses are sometimes inherited. Diseases that are inherited develop because a person has certain genes, the material in the body that helps determine physical and mental characteristics, such as hair and eye color. An example of an inherited chronic illness is sickle-cell anemia. This disease affects the blood's ability to carry oxygen through the body. Sickle-cell anemia is more likely to occur in people of African descent who carry the gene for the disease. Sometimes the symptoms of inherited chronic illnesses appear early in childhood. At other times, symptoms of an inherited chronic illness do not show up until much later in life.
Some chronic illnesses are caused by environmental factors such as exposure to pollutants. Coal miners may breathe so much coal dust in the air that they begin to show symptoms of a chronic lung disorder called black lung disease. Bacteria * or viruses * also can cause chronic illnesses. For example, Lyme disease, a bacterial disease spread by the bite of ticks, causes an acute flulike illness at first, but it also can cause long-term joint, heart, and nervous system problems that may not show up for months or years. Some chronic illnesses are progressive. Progressive illnesses such as muscular dystrophy * , cystic fibrosis * , multiple sclerosis * , Parkinson disease * , or Alzheimer disease * can get worse as time passes.
How Is Chronic Illness Treated?
When doctors diagnose a chronic illness, they also recommend treatments that can relieve symptoms or keep the body functioning at its healthiest. Sometimes treatments involve medications the doctor will prescribe. Sometimes managing the illness also will depend on things the ill person can do to remain as healthy as possible, such as making changes in diet, quitting smoking, or exercising more. People with chronic illness seem to do best when they work as partners with their doctors to take an active role in caring for their health.
The symptoms of many chronic illnesses can be controlled with medication or changes in diet and activity. For example, people with diabetes (dy-a-BEE-teez) are unable to process sugars properly for use by the body. By taking insulin * or other medications and by eating properly, people with diabetes can lead very active, normal lives. Bobby Clarke, who played professional ice hockey for many years, is an example of a person with diabetes who has had a vigorous and demanding career, even though he takes insulin every day.
Some people with chronic illnesses have symptoms that appear only under certain conditions. For example, some people with asthma (AZ-ma), a chronic illness that affects the lungs, may experience difficulty breathing only when they exercise, breathe in pollutants, or are under stress. Others with asthma may need to take medications or use inhalers daily to prevent wheezing. When the symptoms of a chronic illness are not present or are minimal, the illness is said to be in remission (ree-MI-shun). Having an illness that is in remission is not the same as being cured, because the disease that causes the illness is still present.
* bacteria are round, spiral, or rod-shaped single-cell microorganisms without a distinct nucleus that commonly multiply by cell division. Some types may cause disease in humans, animals, or plants.
* viruses are tiny infectious agents that lack independent metabolism (me-TA-bo-li-zum), the chemical processes by which living things produce and use energy. Viruses can reproduce only within the cells they infect.
* muscular dystrophy (DIS-trofee) is a group of inherited disorders in which there is a gradual deterioration and weakening of muscles.
* cystic fibrosis is an inherited condition in which certain glands produce very sticky mucus (MYOO-kus) that clogs the lungs, the intestines, and some other organs of the body, making it difficult to breathe and digest food properly.
* multiple sclerosis is an inflammatory disease of the nervous system that disrupts communication between the brain and other parts of the body, that can result in weakness, paralysis, blindness, and other symptoms.
* Parkinson disease is a disorder of the nervous system that causes shaking, rigid muscles, slow movements, and poor balance.
* Alzheimer (ALTS-hy-mer) disease is a condition that leads to gradually worsening loss of mental abilities, including memory, judgment, and abstract thinking, as well as changes in personality.
Coping with Chronic Illness
Accepting that one must live with the limitations of a chronic illness can be emotionally difficult. How people react to the diagnosis of a chronic illness and how they cope depend partly on the nature of the illness, and the age and resilience of the person. The changes they believe the illness will make in their lives, and how the illness will change their family and social support, also influence how people cope. Many people go through a process of grieving for the health and freedom of activity that they have lost. They may pass through stages of denial, anger, depression, and worry when they find out that they have a chronic disease.
Self-image and self-esteem may suffer when a person must cope with a chronic illness, especially if that illness is painful or imposes limitations that interfere with social activities, school, or work. Chronic illness may be difficult for other family members, who frequently must take on additional responsibilities at home. Many chronic illnesses may get better or go into remission, only to reappear unexpectedly, sometimes with worse symptoms. Uncertainty about the course of the illness can be stressful. This uncertainty also may make planning for vacations or special activities difficult.
Support groups dedicated to specific illnesses are often effective in helping the person with a chronic illness and that person's caregivers make emotional and physical adjustments to the disease. Counseling and therapy for both the chronically ill person and caregivers or family members may help people find ways of dealing with the stress of chronic illness. Many people with chronic illness, even children, cope well with their condition and find ways of adjusting to their disease and leading full and meaningful lives.
* insulin is a kind of hormone, or chemical produced in the body, that is crucial In controlling the level of glucose (sugar) in the blood and in helping the body use glucose to produce energy. When the body cannot produce or use insulin properly, a person must take insulin or other medications.
Huegel, Kelly. Young People and Chronic Illness: True Stories, Help, and Hope. Minneapolis: Free Spirit Publishing, 1998. True stories about teens with asthma, diabetes, lupus, hemophilia, Crohn's disease, and epilepsy, and strategies for how to cope with chronic illness.
Kaufman, Miriam. Easy for You to Say: Q and As for Teens Living with Chronic Illness or Disability. Toronto: Key Porter Books, 1995.
Center for Disability Information and Referral, Indiana Institute on
Disability and Community, 2853 East Tenth Street, Bloomington, IN
47408-2696. This organization focuses on the disability aspect of
chronic illness. It provides referrals for all types of disabilities.
KidsHealth website has much valuable information for children, teens,
and parents. Articles on muscular dystrophy, diabetes, and coping with
chronic illness are available at their website.