Why Ignoring Adults with PANS Hurts Everybody

After twenty years in and out of group homes, psychiatric hospitals, and residential treatment centers, at twenty-nine, Jo* has never been stable enough to have a job. Jo lives with his parents between hospitalizations. Despite being incredibly smart, Jo barely finished high school due to several learning disabilities. Jo’s frequent panic attacks render him unable to drive. Jo almost died of cardiac arrest from anorexia and has attempted suicide multiple times.

Twenty-four years of psychiatrists have yet to result in a combination of medications to control Jo’s severe mental illnesses, and therapy has little effect despite his wanting to recover and get on with life more than anything else. Doctors have decided that it’s okay to label Jo “treatment-resistant” and resign him to a lifetime of repeated hospitalizations that never have lasting results.

And doctors have also decided that Jo’s never-ending stream of Strep, viruses, and sinus infections couldn’t possibly have anything at all to do with his debilitating mental health problems.

Jo is not an isolated tragedy—Jo is a classic case of severe adult PANS/PANDAS that never got diagnosed or treated. There are multiple “Jo’s” in any mental health ward at any given time, and countless others like him struggling through their years as they face life-altering, yet less extreme symptoms.

With PANS/PANDAS Awareness Day upon us, instead of writing an inspiring, feel-good post, this year, I want everyone to openly proclaim an uncomfortable truth:

Adults get PANS, too, because PANS doesn’t end in childhood.

This post is not directed at any organization or individual in particular. Rather, it is a call for every single one of us to reconsider how we talk about PANS/PANDAS and how we include or exclude those of us who no longer qualify as “pediatric.”

I’m proud that there’s more awareness of teens and adults with this condition than when I was diagnosed five years ago, but for the sake of people with PANS of all ages, we must continue to do better. And this is why I want everyone reading this to understand that ignoring adults with PANS and focusing on children is a lose-lose situation for everyone. Think I’m biased because I’m an adult with PANS? Let’s consider the facts…

Pediatric illnesses get less funding than those that affect adults.

Take a look at childhood cancer, a deadly illness that strikes fear and pity in the hearts of all who encounter it. Cancer affects around ~1 in 285 kids by the time they’re twenty—a similar rate to the 1 in 200 kids estimated for PANS. Guess what percent of NIH’s cancer funding goes to pediatric cancer?

An utterly pathetic 4%. 

If skeletal, bald kids obviously suffering from a life-threatening condition cannot spark enough sympathy and alarm for more research for a cure, then why do we think that unruly, screaming kids with PANS will—kids whose behavior is mistakenly blamed on bad parenting and something they could control if they tried harder?

It is misguided if people are focusing their awareness efforts on kids with PANS in the hopes of sparking sympathy to gain more funding. If other pediatric diseases with well-established mechanisms that clearly aren’t anyone’s fault can’t generate enough funding, then we can’t possibly expect a condition that others perceive as a parenting problem to do any better.

If you want funding for PANS, you must raise the stakes for not funding it. You must shine a light on the thousands of Jo’s in the world who are losing their entire lives to PANS and can’t contribute their gifts to society.  You must show that it could be anyone—whether a child, teen, or adult—who could find their whole world turned upside down by PANS someday.

Image of adult with PANS crouching on the floor with head in hands.

Continuing to couch PANS as a pediatric illness makes it seem less serious and urgent.

If kids outgrow PANS at puberty, why look for a cure? Why put them through invasive immune-based treatments? Why not just give them some psych meds and cart them off to therapy until they grow up, and call it good? (I’m discounting severe cases for the sake of the argument.)

If you want to help kids with PANS, you need to acknowledge that they might become adults with PANS without proper intervention. Put pressure on doctors to take action. Acknowledge it as the public health crisis it is. Scare the insurance companies with the possibility of years and years of psych meds and expensive hospitalizations if they don’t cover treatments like IVIG and Rituxan and Plasmapheresis.

No insurance company will ever pay to treat PANS with such therapies if they think time alone will be a cheaper alternative. It’s a given in America that the insurance companies focus on their bottom lines, so threaten them with the prospect of a kid becoming a teen and then an adult with debilitating, treatment-resistant mental illness.

We need to stop calling PANS a “childhood neuropsychiatric disorder” if we truly want it to stay that way for the kids who get it.

Empty bag of IV fluids

There’s no scientific evidence that PANS only affects kids.

Before PANS, it was called PANDAS (Pediatric Autoimmune Neuropsychiatric Disorders Associated with Streptococcus). PANDAS got classified as pediatric because most people are immune to Strep by the time they’re twelve. Thus, if people couldn’t get Strep past twelve, then they couldn’t get PANDAS.

The problem is there are always a few teens and adults who get Strep, and I would argue that a person whose immune system can’t deal with Strep effectively is a person who is more likely to have Strep trigger an autoimmune reaction.

And there’s precedence to my hypothesis because there were outbreaks of Rheumatic Fever (another post-infectious complication of Strep) among military recruits in the twentieth century—and these were men typically in their late teens to late twenties. If adults can get Rheumatic fever, they can absolutely get PANDAS.

Moreover, since PANDAS was first described in 1998, doctors have come to realize that any infection can cause the illness—not just Strep. Thus, the age requirement is now moot, and PANDAS is considered a subset of PANS.

And if anyone bothers to read the PANS diagnostic guidelines established by experts in the condition, they would see that it specifically says it’s not restricted to any age group.

PANS is only considered pediatric for research purposes.

When conducting a study, scientists need to have the most homogenous patient populations possible, so they have to restrict the age group they study. The immune systems of an eight year-old and a thirty-eight year-old are completely different, and grouping them together in the same study on PANS could compromise the validity of the results in determining treatment outcomes.

I do not fault researchers for focusing on kids in the beginning since the condition does most often start in childhood. However, I find it disappointing there still hasn’t been a single double-blind, placebo-controlled study of treating PANS in adults. The lack of studies on adults is interpreted by some rigid-thinking doctors as evidence that it doesn’t exist—but in reality, it proves only that no one has bothered to study it systematically.

I suspect that part of the reluctance within the PANS community in embracing adults also has to do with this same paucity of research. I respect not jumping to unfounded conclusions, but do we really need an official study before we can say that nothing medical magically happens on a person’s eighteenth birthday?

Adults with PANS exist because the real world isn’t a well-designed research study. So why are we all pretending that it is?

Lastly, we need to stop referring to PANS as pediatric because it prevents adults from getting the treatment they need.

If you think it’s hard to find help for a pre-pubescent kid with PANS, try being an adult who has it. Try finding doctors who will take you seriously when seeking help for an illness that has the word “Pediatric” in its name. Try convincing said doctor that it’s not too late to try to treat it. Try even finding a “PANS Specialist” who will treat you—many won’t see you if you’re over eighteen.

An adult with PANS holding up a sign that says it took 15 doctors and 10 misdiagnoses before I was diagnosed with PANS/PANDAS. I want to change that. Learn from top experts neuroimmune.org
It took 15 doctors, 10 misdiagnoses, and 8 years before I was diagnosed with PANS.

It wasn’t until I was seventeen that my family ever came across the term “PANDAS.” By this point, I’d been sick for six years. I’d bounced from doctor to doctor all through adolescence and tried all sorts of medications to little avail. Unfortunately, none of the doctors we asked about PANDAS knew what to do about it, and some said seventeen was probably too late to treat it anyway.

In the end, it wasn’t until two years later that I finally got the help I needed from an out-of-state, out-of-network doctor who specialized in PANS. As sad as it sounds that it took eight years for me to get treated, I consider myself one of the lucky ones—not everyone can find or afford a doctor who will help.

Although practitioners who treat kids with PANS/PANDAS are overbooked everywhere, at this time, I know of only a few doctors in the entire USA who treat adults with PANS with the recommended antibiotic, IVIG, and Rituxan therapies. People who get PANS at the wrong age deserve better—and the kids who grow up without a diagnosis do, too.

Unfortunately, with the “P” for Pediatric in PANS/PANDAS, no matter how much awareness we try to spread, adults and teens will still face obstacles in getting a proper diagnosis. There will still be that knee-jerk reaction when they ask a doctor for help for it. There will still be doctors who can’t get past the “P” to see that a person fulfills all other criteria.

Ultimately, we’re going to have to banish the “pediatric” qualifier altogether if we want better awareness for everyone whom PANS can affect.

Artwork of a silhouette of an adult with PANS with a glowing red brain.

In conclusion, I don’t want you to only share this post and say you agree—I want you to stop talking only about “children” who suffer from PANS. Stop claiming it’s a childhood disorder. Stop pretending there aren’t adults who fell through the cracks as kids. Stop ignoring that PANS can happen to anyone of any age.

And most of all, please stop propagating the myth that everyone grows out of PANS when they hit puberty or turn eighteen—there is absolutely no scientific basis for such claims. I know all of the parents of young kids with PANS would like to believe this, and perhaps it is true for a few.  Nevertheless, in the long-run, perpetuating a myth based in wishful thinking is harmful to all of us.

Today, we must light a fire under the public’s and legislator’s feet with the awareness that thousands of adults are too sick with PANS to work and live productive lives. We need to make everyone understand that there are people with PANS and Lyme and autoimmune encephalitis taking up mental health resources who only marginally benefit and will never get better without medical treatments—and remind everyone of the thousands of veterans and homeless people and others not getting help because of how overburdened the mental health system is.

If we acknowledged and treated every adult with PANS, imagine how many mental health resources we could free up for so many other people who desperately need them!

Multiple medications attempted before I was diagnosed with PANS as an adult
A fraction of my 8 years of misdiagnosis, unsuccessful treatments, and misused resources that could’ve helped others more. Now multiply this by hundreds of thousands of people with PANS…

As a twenty-four year-old still healing from PANS, believe me when I say I want every single kid with this horrible illness to get all of the attention and treatment they need to get better. Believe me when I say it shatters my heart every time I see a child with that unmistakable look of utter despair in their eyes because I’ve felt the same pain. Believe me when I say I hope I’m the last generation of adults who will evade proper diagnosis until we’re no longer pediatric.

But please acknowledge that adults like Jo and me matter just as much as every single child with PANS; he and I and thousands of others were also once kids with PANS. Please raise awareness of PANS as the life-stealer—not just childhood stealer—that it is. Raise awareness that PANS is a monster that may grow bigger and stronger just as the kid who has it does.

Because only when we admit that PANS can strike at any age and continue through adulthood, and only then, will we possibly earn enough recognition and urgency for the changes in medical paradigm that will allow people with PANS of all ages to get the life-saving care they need.

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*”Jo” does not refer to any particular person—it’s an amalgamation of many adults with PANS whom I’ve met who have similar stories.

19 thoughts on “Why Ignoring Adults with PANS Hurts Everybody

  1. I’m a 57 year old who started out life with 2 big tonsils (my doctors opinion) . I was getting Strep throat at least 2 times a year for my first 20 years of my life. I finally got my tonsils taken out at 20 years of age. I didn’t realize it was too late because at 23 years of age my OCD symptoms started to this day 34 years later. The Strep virus broke the brain barrier and attacked my Basal ganglia causing my OCD. All this has been researched by me for the last 8 years to find out more about this disorder. Of course I can tell you that biological evidence has shown that OCD is a brain disorder and not anything else and I believe that P.A.N.S. causes OCD in everyone who has this disorder. The tonsils are located to close the the brain for it not to be the case. I’m not a Doctor but from my experience this has to be true (Allegedly). My strep has stopped since the Tonsillectomy Thank Science but like I mentioned from my experience it true any age including ADULT’S are susceptible to P.A.N.S.
    Thank you for this movement you started much appreciated !!!

  2. Infection started in elementary school and adhd and ocd..chronic eating disorder at 22…depression anxiety and constant struggle since then,and inability to completely function in life despite wishing I could do so and being labeled as a multiple diagnosis mental case..finally a month ago..pans diagnosed at the age of 51…I’m hopeful but still angry that I’ve been really struggling for so many years and given up on so much of my life but god bless a psychiatrist and psychologist in Calgary,Alberta Canada for figuring it out and being kind gentle women who are so genuinely worried about me and me falling through the cracks and wanting to help me and giving me hope.. I’m still really down on myself and worn out but grateful for 2 amazing ladies that said they are going to stick through the healing process with me and help..Thank you Dr.Brock and Dr.Gudeon for restoring a flicker of hope in my broken soul,sincerely Dawn Michelle

  3. I see a lot of myself in “Jo”–I’m in my early 30s chronologically yet feel like I’ve barely actually been growing and developing since high school, given that all my emotional energy was put into rising above my health issues and their affect on my mood and outlook.

  4. Thank you for your blog. My 17 year old daughter has PANS and has been sick for years. Would you mind sharing the name of the doctor who treated you with me as well?

  5. I am a 45 year old mom with PANS. It wasnt until my oldest son was diagnosed at age 11 did I ask his doctor, who was also my doctor, to test me for the same infections my son had. Sure enough I had all the same crap he did including lyme, strep, myco, etc. I’d been sick with “mental health” issues since before he was born and then really went down hill after his birth. Did tons of psych meds but was basically resistant as I never got better. Well no wonder because my immune system was tanked and I had tons of infections running rampant in my body! I got better to a point after our doctor treated me but I and my son, who is now almost 15, are still fighting this horrible affliction. Will we ever get better? I dont know but I hope so. Thanks for writing this and spreading awareness that germs dont stop because of your age.

    1. Hi L, thank you for sharing your story. I’m glad your doctor was willing to investigate PANS even though you’re an adult. It can be a long road to recovery, but I believe we can all get better with the right treatments.

  6. I absolutely agree with you that it totally makes sense that PANS exists in adulthood. As a parent of children with PANS, I think it is easier to identify a child because kids go through developmental phases of their lives and it is easy to compare them to their non-PANS peers. Meaning, you likely have parents who are able to see the symptoms and hopefully recognize them as abnormal.
    As an adult, until we evolve our mental health system away from a Big Pharma model, I think it will be hard to identify adults suffering from PANS. My hope is that one day, every doctor or hospital seeing someone with psychiatric symptoms will rule out a medical cause in every case. As we have seen in other research, we clearly know inflammation is causing serious mental health conditions like schizophrenia.
    I absolutely agree, as most people do, that the name needs to change. I would argue we need to be rid of both “pediatric”and “acute onset” in the name because too many people fall through the cracks because of both of those words.
    Thank you for bringing more awareness to what it is like to be an adult struggling with this disorder. Wishing you good health in your future.

    1. I agree that we need to get rid of the “acute-onset,” too! A lot of experts are coming out and saying that was also just a research qualifier. You make a lot of great points. Much of the problem with adults is that doctors have always treated psychiatric patients a certain way and don’t consider other possible causes for their illness even when PANS makes the most sense. Hopefully with all of the research coming out and awareness spreading this will continue to change. Thanks for reading my blog!

  7. Thank you for your post. My son is 20 years old and dealing with Pandas. It is not a sickness that only impacts childern, my son is a young adult and been struggling with this condition for about 4 years now. We will will follow your posts and let you know if we find some additional help with coping or hopefully curing his condition. We remain optimistic that there is a cure but understand that no 2 people are exactly alike. Alex J

    1. Hi Alex, thanks for following my blog. Sorry to hear your son struggles with this, too. There’s a lot of great research being done and many smart doctors trying to figure out a cure, so I’m also optimistic they’re going to find one. 🙂

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