Gulf War unexplained illnesses: Persistence and unexplained nature of self-reported symptoms

Linda A. McCauley, Sandra K. Joos, Michael R. Lasarev, Daniel Storzbach, Dennis N. Bourdette

Research output: Contribution to journalArticlepeer-review

32 Scopus citations


Most published reports of health symptoms among Gulf War (GW) veterans have been based on self-reported questionnaire data. The presence of these symptoms at the time of a clinical evaluation and the unexplained nature of the symptoms have not been described. We report the findings of a sample of symptomatic veterans that were examined as part of a population-based case- control study of GW unexplained illnesses. Participants in the case-control study were selected from responders to a cross- sectional survey of a random sample of GW veterans residing in the northwestern United States. The initial survey questionnaire solicited information on the presence of fatigue and psychological/cognitive, gastrointestinal, musculoskeletal, and dermatological problems. The persistence of the symptoms and possible explanatory diagnoses were explored at the time of the clinical evaluation. Findings from the first 225 participants who completed clinical examinations indicate significant differences between self-reported symptoms on the survey questionnaire and those confirmed at the time of clinical exam. The agreement between symptoms reported both on the survey and at the time of examination varies across the symptom groups. While self-reported unexplained fatigue was confirmed at the time of clinical encounter in 79% of participants, self-reported gastrointestinal symptoms were confirmed at the clinical encounter in only 20% of participants. Differences between symptoms reported on the survey questionnaire and those confirmed at the time of clinical encounter were attributable to finding a clinical diagnosis for the symptom, resolution of symptom(s) between time of questionnaire and clinical exam, and inadvertent endorsement of the symptom on the questionnaire. These findings suggest that due to the possibility of outcome misclassification, inappropriate conclusions may be drawn about the association between exposures and unexplained illnesses in GW veterans from data derived solely from self-administered questionnaires.

Original languageEnglish (US)
Pages (from-to)215-223
Number of pages9
JournalEnvironmental Research
Issue number3
StatePublished - Oct 1999


  • Case-control studies
  • Clinical evaluation
  • Gulf War
  • Health symptoms
  • Survey questionnaires

ASJC Scopus subject areas

  • Biochemistry
  • Environmental Science(all)


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