Morgellons Disease

This mysterious illness, which has cropped up again recently, displays almost sci-fi symptoms. Sufferers complain of intensely creepy-crawly skin and odd fibrous strands which protrude from open wounds. Some in the medical community blame the "disease" on psychotic delusion, but others say the symptoms are very real.

HEPATITIS C

This disease is caused by the hepatitis C virus, which is spread by contact with infected blood, leading to inflammation and scarring of the liver.
Who's at risk: Anyone who had blood transfusions or organ transplants before July 1992, when better testing of donors was implemented. Also at risk: health care workers who may have been jabbed with a needle or splashed with blood. At highest risk are users of illegal drugs, people with tattoos and long-term hemodialysis patients.

Symptoms: In its early stages, the only symptom is fatigue. "Hepatitis C is a silent killer," says Carroll B. Leevy, associate professor of medicine at the Liver Center at the University of Medicine and Dentistry of New Jersey. "Probably almost half who are infected with hepatitis C in this country do not know they have it." Late-stage symptoms include digestive upsets, muscle and joint pain, kidney disease, autoimmune problems and cirrhosis.
Diagnosis: A simple blood test can detect the virus.

Treatment: A combination of antiviral drugs can slow or stop the disease, but the course can last up to 48 weeks.

Chronic Fatigue Syndrome

Chronic fatigue is a classic MUPS (medically unexplained physical symptoms) disease, with a diagnosis based only on the ruling out of other possibilities. More than just feeling a little tired, CFS patients are often bed-ridden for days at a time. Another related disease that can be mistaken as Chronic Fatigue syndrome is Sleep Apnea:

Cartoons have long poked fun at thunderous snoring, but experts are realizing the noise is serious. Snoring may indicate sleep apnea, which can lead to high blood pressure, heart disease and strokes.

A collapsing airway triggers the snoring, and it can interrupt breathing for as long as a minute. Sufferers awake—usually without realizing it—to restart their breathing. That continual arousal interferes with the quality of sleep, says James Walsh, president of the National Sleep Foundation. Yet many doctors still don’t realize how harmful this can be; getting a proper diagnosis is difficult.

Who’s at risk: Risk increases with age, but even children can get it. Some 18 million Americans have the condition, according to the National Sleep Foundation. It’s twice as common in men as it is in women, and it’s associated with being overweight and having a physical abnormality in the upper airway.

Symptoms: You guessed it: snoring. Also, daytime sleepiness.

Diagnosis: Unexplained daytime sleepiness is a key sign of sleep apnea or other sleep disorders, Walsh says. When doctors suspect sleep apnea, they may recommend spending a night at a sleep clinic to monitor brain activity and blood oxygen levels.

Treatment: Patients find relief by using a machine that forces air through the nasal passages during sleep.

Creutzfeldt-Jakob Disease

One version of this rare brain disorder is better known "Mad Cow" and can be contracted by eating contaminated beef. "Regular" CJD is also always fatal, quick-acting and is the most common form, but develops in most patients for reasons doctors have yet to figure out and can not prevent.

ANEURYSM
Experts have likened aneurysms to time bombs for good reason: You can be symptomless until the faulty blood vessel bursts. The major arteries in the chest and head are the most notorious--and fatal--places to have an aneurysm; half of all victims die immediately. However, the prognosis is good for people who have aneurysms removed before they burst, says neurosurgeon Thomas Kopitnik, at Central Wyoming Neurosurgery in Casper.

Who's at risk: About 2 million Americans are walking around with unruptured brain aneurysms, yet many doctors still think of the condition as rare. Aneurysms in the aorta--the garden-hose-sized artery that runs from the groin to the chest--figured in 22,000 deaths in 2000. (And it killed 54-year-old actor John Ritter last year.) Artery disease, high blood pressure, smoking and having close relative who have had aneurysms all raise your risk.

Symptoms: If a brain aneurysms bursts, it causes the instantaneous onset of an unusually severe headache, Kopitnik says. Other symptoms include nausea and vomiting, blurred vision, pain above and behind an eye and stiff neck. Aortic aneurysms announce their presence with crushing chest or abdominal pain.

Diagnosis: Kopitnik offers two pieces of advice: Anybody who suspects a burst aneurysm should get to a vascular neurosurgeon fast. Second, if you are at risk for having an aneurysm, ask your doctor to do an MRI screening.

Treatment: Quick surgery can save a person's life.

LYME DISEASE

That bull’s-eye rash isn’t the reliable indicator we think it is. In fact, the rash isn’t always a bull’s-eye—it can be solid red or pink, and darker in people with darker skin. Should the tick get away unnoticed, the Lyme bacterium produces symptoms so vague that doctors and patients can go months without knowing why they’re tired all the time, or how they might have suddenly developed arthritis.

Who’s at Risk: People living in areas where Lyme disease is prevalent and especially those who work outdoors of kids who play outdoors in those areas.

Symptoms: Joint pains, muscle aches, loss of appetite, fever, chills, fatigue and other symptoms victims—and doctors—may write off as the flu.

Diagnosis: The bull’s-eye rash that typically develops three days to one month after a bite from a tick carrying the bacterium Borrelia burgdorferi is your best bet. But the rash never appears in some infected people and blood tests can be unreliable. Symptoms may provide the best clue.

Treatment: Start with prevention: after being outdoors, always check yourself for ticks. If you’re infected, antibiotic therapy can take care of symptoms. But if the disease lurks for several years, you may need several courses of antibiotics.

Autoimmune Disorders

A catchall term for a host of afflictions including Lupus and MS, autoimmune disorders treat the body's organs and normal functions as enemy invaders. They're usually chronic, always debilitating, and doctors can do little except ease their symptoms.

Pica

People diagnosed with Pica have an insatiable urge to eat non-food substances like dirt, paper, glue and clay. Though it is believed to be linked with mineral deficiency, health experts have found no real cause and no cure for the peculiar disorder.

Avian Flu

Humans have no immunity to the powerful flu virus carried by birds, which health official fear could mutate into a strain that can be transmitted between humans. Death rates for human infected are around 50 percent but, so far, humans have been infected mostly by direct handling with infected birds.

LUPUS

Relief. That's what Kevin C. Crews felt when he was diagnosed with lupus. Since childhood, Crews had been plagued by health problems - fatigue, fever and trouble breathing. As an adult, joint pain and rashes added to his woes. Yet no doctor could ever tell him why. Finally after a bout of severe chest pains and visits to four different specialists, a rheumatologist figured out Crew's problem. "Actually coming up with a diagnosis was kind of a relief. Now I have a name to put with it," says the 43-year-old, who does special effects for theatrical productions in California. He also discovered that the autoimmune disease had provoked his body's defenses to attack his own tissue and organs.
Who's at risk: Lupus has a genetic basis and most commonly strikes young women, which is one reason doctors failed to pinpoint Crew's problem.

Symptoms: They're maddeningly tough to predict, according to Joan T. Merrill, co-chair of the Medical and Scientific Advisory Board of Lupus Foundation of America. "Lupus can affect almost any organ in the body," Merrill says. One person may have swelling of the feet and pain while breathing. The next patient may have sores in the mouth and nose or rashes.
Diagnosis: Doctors consider a patient's medical history and immune function. One survey suggests more than half of all patients suffer for four or more years and visit three or more doctors before being diagnosed.

Treatment: A variety of drugs are used, depending on how lupus manifests itself. Crews still struggles with his symptoms, but he has been well enough to work and lead a full life.