Chronic fatigue syndrome

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What is it

A person who has chronic fatigue syndrome (CFS) feels weak and enervated much or all of the time and may have difficulty performing daily tasks, even those that are routine and undemanding. Having difficulty sleeping and finding it hard to concentrate are also common symptoms.

It’s not clear whether CFS is a specific condition, several related conditions, or a group of symptoms that can’t be attributed to any particular cause. No specific cause has been linked to CFS, and because the symptoms associated with CFS are connected to many other disorders, it is difficult to establish a diagnosis. Generally, according to guidelines established by the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, the problem isn’t considered to be CFS unless severe fatigue and other symptoms have interfered with the ability to work and function for at least six months.

Those who are most likely to develop the problem are 25 to 45 years old, but CFS can occur at any age. In the United States about 80 percent of those diagnosed with CFS are women, for reasons that aren’t understood. (It may be that women have simply reported the problem more often than men.) A majority of those who report having the problem are allergy sufferers (only 20 percent of the general population suffer from allergies).

While there are anecdotal reports of increased rates of other illnesses (such as cancer and multiple sclerosis) among those with CFS, these claims have not been scientifically established.


  • Recurrent flulike symptoms, including fever, sore throat, headache, muscle pain, and joint pain.
  • Severe, debilitating fatigue that is not relieved by rest or sleep and is made worse by exercise.
  • Depression and irritability.

What causes it

Researchers have tried to pin down a cause, but the goal has proved elusive. In the early 1980s the disorder was called Epstein-Barr syndrome because most chronic sufferers were found to be infected with the Epstein-Barr virus, which causes mononucleosis. However, since then many people complaining of CFS symptoms show no sign of the virus, and many healthy people have been exposed to the virus with no ill effects. There is no evidence, in fact, that CFS is caused by any virus or that it is contagious.

According to another theory, people with this syndrome have an autoimmune disorder in which the immune system reacts (or overreacts) to a perceived threat (such as a virus) by attacking otherwise healthy tissues. This has led to CFS also being referred to as chronic fatigue and immune dysfunction syndrome, or CFIDS. Some researchers also think that emotional and psychological factors play a role in causing or exacerbating CFS.

What if you do nothing

Most people who have CFS recover, with or without treatment; symptoms disappear and nor- mal levels of activity can eventually be resumed. But recovery can take months or even years. The course of the illness varies greatly among individuals, and often the presence of symptoms follows a cyclical pattern, with periods of illness alternating with periods of relatively good health.

Home remedies

There is no cure for CFS, but a few measures may provide relief.

Take it easy but not too easy

Get plenty of rest and try not to overexert yourself, since doing so can aggravate symptoms. But do try to stay physically active and perform some light exercise.

Try over-the-counter pain relievers

Aspirin, ibuprofen, and naproxen can relieve joint pain and headaches and reduce fever.

Contact support groups and hotlines

There are growing numbers of groups that offer psychological support and information about CFS. Some publish newsletters that describe recent research efforts, offer advice about how to cope with the illness, and note doctors who are experienced in diagnosing and treating CFS.


There is no established way to prevent chronic fatigue syndrome.

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