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Gulf War Illness

What is Gulf War Illness?

Gulf War Illness (GWI) is a term that refers to a group of unexplained or ill-defined chronic symptoms found in Veterans deployed to the Persian Gulf during Operation Desert Storm/Operation Desert Shield (1990-1991).

What are the Symptoms of Gulf War Illness?

Symptoms of GWI vary and cannot be grouped into one consistent group of symptoms. This may make it challenging for healthcare providers to recognize and treat it. Here are the most common symptoms of GWI:

  • Fatigue

  • Muscle and joint pain

  • Cognitive difficulty

  • Skin rashes

  • Abdominal (belly) discomfort/bowel changes

  • Headaches

  • Shortness of breath

  • Sleep disturbances

How Many Veterans are Impacted by Gulf War Illness?

Several studies showed that about one-third of Gulf War Veterans have GWI. It’s important to note that deployed Gulf War Era Veterans do not have higher rates of death compared to Gulf War Era Veterans who did not deploy.

What are the Possible Causes of Gulf War Illness?

Despite much research, the cause of GWI is unclear. A number of possible causes include:

  • Immune problems

  • Nerve problems

  • Problem with part of your cells involved in energy (mitochondrial dysfunction)

  • A genetic and environmental exposure interaction

  • Deployment related exposures

  • A combination of these factor

Many Gulf War Veterans have concerns that exposure to chemicals such as pyridostigmine bromide (taken in pill form to prevent disease) and smoke from oil well fires caused GWI. There have been no clear or consistent links found. Veterans can work with a healthcare provider or see an environmental health clinician or expert in occupational and environmental exposures if they have specific exposure concerns.

What is the Treatment for Gulf War Illness?

GWI falls under a broad term for a group of chronic, unexplained symptoms called Chronic Multi-Symptom Illness (CMI). In 2014, the Department of Veterans Affairs (VA) and Department of Defense (DoD) released guidelines for healthcare providers caring for Veterans with CMI. These guidelines can also help healthcare providers identify, manage, and treat GWI. Veterans with concerns about GWI can learn more about the guidelines for treatment of CMI by clicking here:

Patient Summary  


There are no specific treatments for GWI. The focus of treatment is improving your quality of life and functioning. Treatment without medicines is usually tried first. It can include:

  • Graded exercise programs

  • Yoga

  • Acupuncture

  • Cognitive-behavioral therapy

There are some medicines which may help reduce your symptoms. 

Your care should be tailored to you. What works well for you may not work well for someone else. Care coordination is a central part of managing chronic conditions such as GWI. It is important for Veterans to work with their healthcare team to check their response to any treatment.

Looking Ahead

VA continues to look for the best approaches to Veteran care. They also will continue to do more research about GWI and CMI. Your participation in the VA’s Gulf War Registry Health Exam helps identify health issues related to GWI. It also assists the VA in understanding and responding to these health problems more effectively. For more information, click here.

Additional Resources

Office of Public Health Website

War Related Illness and Injury Study Center (WRIISC)

Gulf War Newsletter – Winter 2016

Exercise To Help Manage Chronic Pain and/or Fatigue

Author: StayWell Custom Communications
Last Annual Review Date: 2/1/2018
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