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Overview of chronic fatigue syndrome (CFS)

Chronic fatigue syndrome (CFS) is also known as myalgic encephalomyelitis (ME), post-viral fatigue syndrome (PVS), chronic fatigue immune dysfunction syndrome (CFIDS) or Tapanui flu. It is a complex illness that affects many systems of your body, particularly the nervous and immune systems.

In New Zealand, there are an estimated 16,000 to 20,000 people with CFS. It can affect people of all ages, ethnic and socio-economic groups, although women are more likely than men to develop it.

People with CFS experience extreme tiredness that doesn't go away with rest and can’t be explained by other causes. Other symptoms include musculoskeletal pain, sleep disturbance, impaired concentration and headaches.

CFS can be difficult to diagnose, and other conditions have to be ruled out before a diagnosis is made.

There is no specific treatment for this condition.

There are self-care steps you can take to help you manage CFS, such as reducing stress, getting support, taking care not to over-exercise, improving your sleep and making sure your diet is balanced with plenty of good nutrients.

The cause of CFS is not yet fully understood, but it is likely that a number of factors contribute to its development. New research is starting to show that there may be changes at a cellular level in people with CFS.

CFS is usually triggered by a viral infection, such as glandular fever or influenza, but any infection may be the trigger. It is likely that there is a genetic vulnerability to this happening.

Other factors that may have occurred in the lead-up to the condition being triggered include:

Symptoms of CFS

People with CFS experience overwhelming physical and mental fatigue (tiredness). This is different to the tiredness that well people experience after strenuous exercise or a day's work. CFS-associated fatigue can be debilitating and does not readily get better with rest.

Other common symptoms include:

Some people also report a range of other symptoms such as nausea, loss of appetite, irritable bowel syndrome, bloating, diarrhoea, irregular heartbeat, chest pain, jaw pain, night sweats, increased sensitivity to alcohol or medication, chronic cough, dizzy spells or dry eyes.

The severity of symptoms can vary from day to day, or even within a day.

Outlook for CFS

The long-term outlook varies quite a bit. There may be times when your symptoms are not too bad and other times when they flare up and become worse. However, many people improve over time (over months and years rather than weeks) and some recover well. Children and younger people have a better rate of full recovery.

Early diagnosis and treatment may lessen the severity of the illness. The important thing to remember is that this is not a progressive or life-threatening disease and that for many people, full recovery is possible.

  HealthInfo recommends the following pages

On the next page: Diagnosing & treating CFS

Adapted from Health Navigator by HealthInfo clinical advisers. Page created May 2019.

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