• Ashley Rippentrop

Chronic Illness vs. Getting Sick

The difference between someone who is chronically ill and someone who gets sick is essentially that one gets better and one does not. When a healthy person gets sick, it typically run its course and their health goes back to normal. When you're chronically ill, your illness doesn't just go back to normal. There often isn't a cure, but rather management of the illness and symptoms.

On top of that...if you have POTS or another chronic illness and catch the common cold or a bout of the flu, not only are you now sick on top of being sick (which will amplify your normal symptoms on top of dealing with new ones), but you’re also at risk for what we call a “flare up.” A flare up is the result of a trigger that has aggravated your illness. Flare ups set us back and make it even harder to do day to day tasks as our symptoms have become much more extreme. A trigger can be a cold, a virus, an injury, traveling, overdoing, a surgery, and the list goes on. A flare up can leave you down and out for a while, lasting days, weeks, months, or even longer depending on several factors.

For example, this past Spring, I was traveling with family and went to my cousin's play that Friday night. During the show, a migraine began to set in, and when I stood up, I felt even more unsteady and lightheaded than usual. My standing threshold became even shorter, putting me at risk for a fainting episode, and I was extremely fatigued. Other weird symptoms were happening as well that notified me that something wasn’t right and I needed to get home ASAP.

I woke up the next day with an even greater migraine and had to lie in bed all day. I had a dinner scheduled with a friend and tried to push through my symptoms for it, but during dinner, my body decided it couldn’t hang anymore. I’ll spare you the gory details, but long story short, I wound up in the ER that night, convulsing, unable to walk or talk, and became severely dehydrated. After 24 hours or so, I was taken to the airport to head back home and had to be wheeled through security, to our gate (sunglasses on too for the migraine) and was carried through the tiny plane aisle to my seat via a portable chair because my body was so weak, the migraine was so debilitating, and plus, I was a fall risk. Since I have POTS, my body is at a much higher risk of dehydration and becoming more severely ill from something like the flu, making the situation more dangerous.

POTS also affects the recovery process. Even once home, I suffered symptoms of the flu for 3-4 more days and my body was shot for a solid week after that. Once recovered from the flu, my typical POTS symptoms (tachycardia, near syncope, dizziness, and migraines to name a few) were still more extreme than usual. Hello, flare up.

In general, once out of a “flare,” it’s not all back to sunshine and rainbows, because remember, we are chronically ill. Emphasis on chronic. When you deal with chronic illness, you never really feel completely well and there will inevitably be another flare up at some point. Until then, you go back to dealing with your typical symptoms and all of the ups and downs that they bring.

Sure, you have your good days, where symptoms are less intense and/or some are absent, and you really appreciate those hours and days, but you’re never quite back to your old healthy self.

For many of us now with POTS or some other chronic illness, we didn’t always used to be this way. Many of us were athletes, dancers, runners, actors, honor roll students. When you realize you can’t do many of these things the same way anymore if at all, it can be a tough pill to swallow. You learn to manage your symptoms as best you can and work around the illness and figure out what you still can do.

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