Aaron Renier
For many of us, simply going to sleep can trigger waves of paranoia. In the quiet darkness, we wonder... "Will a brain aneurysm steal my life tonight? Will I spontaneously seize and swallow my tongue? Is E. Coli spreading through my system from the undercooked hamburger I had for lunch? Am I coming down with the plague?"

However unlikely, the hypochondriac's neurotic storylines are endless. For us, the world is a biological minefield; but at the very least, we disease-crazed wackos can pacify ourselves with the following facts. Or, in the case of the true hypochondriac, fuel the fire.

"I Think I Have AIDS!"

Synopsis: One of the most commonly feared diseases, the media onslaught brought on by the AIDS epidemic has made it appear as if everyone has it; especially you. I myself spent a good four years in a sweaty AIDS panic before finally wising up and submitting to the free test. While anyone who's been through Sex Ed knows how to avoid HIV/AIDS, do we always follow the guidelines? Probably not. So what are your chances?

According to the Center for Disease Control (CDC), there are between eight and nine hundred thousand people living with HIV/AIDS in America, with about 40,000 new cases reported yearly. 70 percent of cases are in men (30% in women), with the majority of cases involving men who sleep with men (42%). Heterosexuals (33%) come next, followed by IV drug users (25%). While an exorbitant 54 percent of the HIV/AIDS population of America is African American, such is not the case in Oregon. In 2002, the Department of Human Services reported there were 125 newly diagnosed HIV infections in the state. Most cases were white men under the age of 40 who sleep with men. Only 24 new cases involved women.

Symptoms: Over a number of years, HIV weakens the body to the point where symptoms are overwhelming; the person develops chronic pneumonia, fever, and skin infections (known as full-blown AIDS). Preliminary symptoms include chronic dry cough, profuse night sweats, chronic fatigue, constant fevers, and recurring yeast infections, including thrush (yeast infection of the mouth), among others.

Statistics: Close to 0.1 percent of the Oregon population has been diagnosed with HIV or AIDS.

Conclusion: Taking basic safety measures, your chances of getting HIV/AIDS are about the same as getting hit by the needle exchange van.

"I Think I Have Epilepsy!"

Synopsis: Fear of epilepsy usually stems from all-night drug binges, or in my case, a family history of partying-induced seizures.

Officially, an epileptic is simply someone who has had more than one seizure. According to the CDC, in about three-fourths of all cases the cause of epilepsy is unknown. In the remaining cases it may be a result of "head trauma, stroke, brain tumor, poisoning, infection, inherited conditions, or problems during fetal development." Heavy drinkers are also at a higher risk of epilepsy, especially if they stop boozing abruptly.

Seizures are caused by electrical discharges in the brain, and there's no easy way to predict when one will come on. After a person is diagnosed with epilepsy, about 75 percent will respond to preventative drug treatment.

Symptoms: There are three types of seizures. Grand mal seizures are like the ones you see people fake in the movies--foaming at the mouth, writhing on the floor, etc. Petit mal, or absence seizures, include loss of consciousness... but no flopping. Partial, or focal seizures, are characterized by smelling or seeing things, staring, chewing, lip smacking, shaking, the body stiffening, wandering, or confusion.

Statistics: According to a CDC study of self-reported epilepsy cases, 4.7 out of 1000 (or almost 1 in 200) people suffer from epilepsy, although the actual prevalence may be slightly higher.

Conclusion: 1 in 200? You probably have epilepsy.

"I Think I Have Bovine Spongiform Encephalomyelitis (BSE/Mad Cow)!"

Synopsis: This particular rare disease hit close to home when BSE-infected beef was distributed throughout the Northwest, including Portland. Although it's egotistical to think you might be the first U.S. beef-related case of the degenerative brain disorder called Creutzfeldt-Jacob disease... somebody's gotta be first, now don't they?

Information on Mad Cow is extremely speculative, with some scientists saying human infection in the U.S. is extremely unlikely, while others claim it may be possible to get mad cow from milk. If the latter proves to be the case, says the British Medical Journal, then everyone who ate butter, cheese, and milk produced from the infected Washington cow (pooled with the milk of 3,000 other cows), would be at risk. At

www.madcowboy.com , Howard Lyman, the mad cowboy in question, cites a London Times article from 1997 that reported a 24-year-old vegetarian had contracted the disease, leading scientists to believe that milk or cheese could be the source.

Regardless, despite widespread mad cow infection among British cattle (thousands were infected, millions were slaughtered), only 139 people had died from the disease as of January. In order to be on the safe side, though, it's generally agreed that people should avoid eating cow brain or spinal cord tissue. It is assumed that people in Britain contracted the disease from tainted sausages where a smattering of cow parts were ground up (i.e. hot dogs).

Symptoms: While mad cow can incubate for 20 years, once symptoms appear the disease progresses rapidly. Indicators include personality changes, hallucinations, muscle twitching, muscle stiffness, lack of coordination, slurring, delirium or dementia, and finally, death.

Statistics: About one in one million people will develop variant (mad cow) or traditional (naturally occurring) Creutzfeldt-Jakob Disease.

Conclusion: Chances of getting mad cow are about the same as winning the lottery. On the other hand, more people eat meat than play Powerball.

"I Think I Have Scabies!"

Synopsis: Vaguely characterized by little red dots or bites, scabies is a common infection caused by a tiny mite that burrows under the skin. While scabies is considered a sexually transmitted disease, you can get it by sleeping in an infected bed, or from wearing infected clothing (i.e. unwashed thrift store purchases). Mites can live up to 24 hours when scratched off the skin and are attracted to worn clothing and bedding scented by the host (a.k.a. you). The treatment is fairly hardcore, requiring the "infected" to coat herself in a liquid 'killing agent,' wash all clothes, and vacuum the entire house. It's like a disease invented by husbands from the 1950s!

Symptoms: Itching so intense, it leads you to believe you're insane. Does not resolve over time; especially irritating at night. Burrow marks, or lines of red dots between fingers, under armpits, around waistband, or anyplace that is warm or clothing clings to.

Statistics: Scabies are very common, especially among groups of people who know someone with scabies or who sleep in random beds--that is to say, everyone who reads the Mercury.

Conclusion: Don't you feel itchy? Don't your armpits feel itchy? My palms feel itchy... don't yours?

"I Think I Have Schizophrenia!"

Synopsis: Recently, while spending the night in the Frankfurt airport, I overheard someone whispering, "Katie Shimer... Katie Shimer," only to discover there was no one there. They only whispered it twice, but in my weakened state, I immediately jumped to the conclusion, "Shit, it's schizophrenia!"

There is no clear cause of schizophrenia, but those who have it often exhibit a chemical imbalance and irregular cell pattern in the brain. The disease occurs more frequently in families where schizophrenia is present, but many people who develop it have no family history. Contrary to popular belief, experts say that drugs (ahem... acid) do not cause schizophrenia, but can worsen symptoms, triggering a psychotic episode, or causing schizophrenia-like symptoms.

Symptoms: Decreased personal hygiene, depression, increased "craziness," uncharacteristic interest in religion, manifesto writing, inappropriate laughing, drug or alcohol abuse, obsessive/compulsive traits, cutting.

Statistics: About one in 100 people are affected by schizophrenia.

Conclusion: You probably know at least 99 people who are not schizophrenic.

"I Think I Have the Tapeworm!"

Synopsis: My co-worker Justin Sanders and I constantly argue over who's got the tapeworm. Last year when Justin was feeling unnaturally hungry for a couple weeks, not only did I convince him he had the tapeworm, but I also persuaded him that the cure was to hold a piece of raw meat under his ass, wait for the tapeworm to stick its head out, then grab it and wrestle it out. YUCK... but funny.

The tapeworm is fairly rare in developed cities and is usually invited in by eating undercooked meat or fish (especially pike), or drinking fecally contaminated water. The pork tapeworm is commonly found in Mexico, packaged in a cyst, which transfers to the human body when one eats contaminated meat. Once inside the body, the worm attaches itself to the intestinal walls with two hooks located on its head. It consumes food, leaving you hungry and malnourished, it can grow up to 30 feet, and can live in a human host for up to 20 years.

Symptoms: Onset occurs about 10 days after exposure, resulting in diarrhea, abdominal discomfort and pain, flatulence, vomiting, nausea, weakness, loss of weight, malnutrition, and moving worm segments found in one's feces.

Statistics: Fairly uncommon in the United States unless you are exposed to the above factors.

Conclusion: If you find moving worm segments in your feces, do yourself a favor and NEVER tell anyone. Trust me, hypochondria will be the least of your problems.