The 12th of May is World Chronic Fatigue and Immune Dysfunction Syndrome Day, and while many people may not have heard of chronic fatigue and immune dysfunction syndrome, it is a serious and quite prevalent medical condition that is extremely debilitating.

According to the Government Employees Medical Scheme (GEMS), the aim of Chronic Fatigue and Immune Dysfunction Syndrome Day is to increase awareness of this condition, for which there is no known cause or cure. Chronic fatigue syndrome (CFS) is probably better known as ‘yuppie flu’, and people suffering from it experience severe exhaustion and develop a variety of symptoms that can make coping with everyday life very difficult.

Most sufferers of CFS describe their fatigue as overpowering, a form of tiredness they have never experienced before. Exercising can exacerbate the symptoms; this is referred to as ‘post-exertional malaise’. The effect of exercise is sometimes delayed — the resulting fatigue may not develop for a few hours afterwards, or may only manifest the next day. People with severe CFS are either unable to do any activities themselves, or can only carry out basic daily tasks. Sufferers are sometimes confined to their bed, and are often unable to leave their homes.

The Mayo Clinic says that chronic fatigue syndrome is a complicated disorder, characterised by extreme fatigue that can’t be explained by any underlying medical condition. The fatigue may worsen with physical or mental activity, but doesn’t improve with rest. The clinic says that, although there are many theories — ranging from viral infections to psychological stress — the cause of CFS remains unknown. It is commonly believed in the scientific world that CFS is most probably caused by a combination of factors that affect people who were born with a predisposition for the disorder. Some of the factors that have been studied include:

Viral infections

Because some people develop chronic fatigue syndrome after having had a viral infection, researchers question whether some viruses trigger the disorder. Suspicious viruses include the Epstein-Barr virus, the human herpes virus 6 and murine leukaemia.

Immune system problems

The immune systems of people who have chronic fatigue syndrome appear to be slightly impaired, but it’s unclear if this impairment is enough to cause the disorder.

Hormonal imbalances

People who have chronic fatigue syndrome also sometimes experience abnormal blood levels of hormones produced in the hypothalamus, pituitary gland or adrenal glands, but the significance of these abnormalities is still undetermined.


Most CFS patients also show signs of depression, although the correlation between the two conditions is still unclear.

GEMS state that, although CFS can affect anyone, it is most commonly diagnosed in men between the ages of 25 and 45 and in women of all ages — women make up about 80% of all diagnosed cases of CFS. As there are a number of similar, overlapping conditions that are often associated with CFS, it is difficult to diagnose, and, therefore, it is difficult to approximate the number of South Africans who are affected by the disease. International statistics, however, reveal that between 1% and 2% of the population in countries such as the USA and Australia are estimated to suffer from CFS.

The Mayo Clinic reports that CFS has eight official signs and symptoms, plus the central symptom that gives the condition its name:

  • fatigue
  • loss of memory or concentration
  • a sore throat
  • enlarged lymph nodes in the neck or armpits
  • unexplained muscle pain
  • pain that moves from one joint to another, without swelling or redness
  • headaches of a new type, pattern or severity
  • waking up un-refreshed
  • extreme exhaustion, lasting more than 24 hours after physical or mental exertion.

Stomach pain and other problems similar to irritable bowel syndrome, such as bloating, constipation, diarrhoea and nausea, sensitivity or intolerance to light, loud noise, alcohol and certain foods, as well as psychological difficulties, such as depression, irritability and panic attacks, have also been described.

GEMS explains that CFS often starts with flu-like symptoms, such as pain in the joints, a headache, a sore throat and mild fever and fatigue. At this point, many doctors mistake the condition for flu; however, in the case of CFS the symptoms continue for much longer — persisting for months or even years. Patients can become increasingly isolated, and run the risk of developing depression.

While CFS cannot currently be cured, many of the symptoms can be successfully treated, and medical professionals can assist in improving a sufferer’s quality of life.