Chronic Fatigue Syndrome

What is chronic fatigue syndrome?

Chronic fatigue syndrome (CFS) is a condition of overwhelming fatigue that lasts for at least 6 months and interferes with your daily life.

Most people with CFS are 20- to 40-year-old adults. The syndrome affects women more often than men. However, men and women of all ages can have CFS.

How does it occur?

The cause of chronic fatigue syndrome is not known.

What are the symptoms?

Physical symptoms of CFS may include:

  • overwhelming exhaustion, tiredness, or weakness that lasts longer than 6 months

  • sore throat

  • tender lymph nodes

  • muscle pain

  • joint aches and pain without swelling or redness

  • headache

  • unrefreshing sleep

  • malaise (general discomfort or uneasiness) lasting more than 24 hours after you exert yourself.

Psychological symptoms of CFS may include:

  • trouble remembering things or concentrating

  • confusion

  • anxiety

  • irritability

  • apathy and depression

  • personality changes

  • mood swings

  • reduced sex drive.

How is it diagnosed?

It is difficult to diagnose CFS because many illnesses cause symptoms similar to those of CFS. Your health care provider will try to rule out other illnesses and possible causes of your fatigue. Your provider will ask about your medical history and symptoms. You will have a complete physical exam. If you have been having fevers but don't have one when you see your provider, you may be asked to record your temperature at home several times a day.

You may have a number of tests, such as urine and blood tests, to check for infections, immune or metabolic diseases, hormone problems, anemia, and tumors.

If your provider cannot find another specific cause for your fatigue, you may be diagnosed with chronic fatigue syndrome.

How is it treated?

If you have chronic fatigue syndrome, there is currently no known cure. However, in addition to medicine to treat some of the symptoms, 2 types of treatment can be helpful:

  • a special exercise program

  • behavior therapy.

The exercise program starts slowly and easily. You increase the amount of exercise very gradually with the goals of increasing your muscle strength and energy. Behavior therapy helps you focus on the positive (what you are able to do) and can help you feel more hopeful as your muscle strength and energy improve. Both exercise and behavior therapy can help reduce other symptoms of CFS such as headaches and trouble concentrating.

Your health care provider may prescribe medicine for symptoms such as headache and muscle pain. Antidepressant medicines may help lessen your fatigue and improve your ability to function.

How long will the effects last?

Chronic fatigue syndrome is not well understood or easily treated. You may continue to have the symptoms for months or years. Usually, the symptoms are most severe during the first year.

How can I take care of myself?

  • Rest as much as possible while you and your health care provider try to treat the illness.

  • Follow the treatment prescribed by your health care provider.

  • Follow your health care provider's recommendations for exercise.

  • Do not smoke.

  • Eat healthy meals.

  • Learn to pace yourself to avoid fatigue. Prioritize your activities each day. Do the most important ones in the morning when your energy level may be higher. It doesn't matter if everything doesn't get done in 1 day. Ask for help at home and at work when the load is too great to handle. Take frequent rest breaks during the day to relax or walk.

  • Engage in recreational activities at least once or twice a week.

  • Join local support groups. Talking with others who have similar problems can really help.

If nothing helps, you may wish to get a second medical opinion.

For more information, contact:

  • The Chronic Fatigue and Immune Dysfunction Syndrome (CFIDS) Association of America
    Phone: 800-442-3437
    Web site:

What can be done to help prevent fatigue?

See your health care provider if you have any unusual or persistent body changes or symptoms. This will allow your provider to identify and treat any underlying health problems early and help prevent your fatigue from becoming worse.