Chronic Fatigue Immune Deficiency Syndrome (CFIDS)

Fatigue has become a part of the human condition. But chronic fatigue and immune deficiency syndrome (CFIDS), also called chronic fatigue syndrome (CFS), is more insidious than normal tiredness. With CFIDS, the fatigue is strong, persistent, and debilitating, typically making you too weak to perform everyday tasks. Often, you're tired even when you have little to do or after a good night's rest. Many people say that the fatigue of CFIDS is similar to the fatigue of the flu.

According to estimates by the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, approximately 500,000 Americans suffer from CFIDS. Most people with CFIDS are women. In the 1980s, CFIDS was called the “yuppie flu” because most sufferers were well-educated, middle-to-upper-class women in their thirties and forties. But now we know that CFIDS can afflict anyone of any age, and that people of any race or socioeconomic level can be affected.

Today, the cause of CFIDS remains a mystery, though research suggests that a chronic, low-grade viral infection may be present. Usually, a diagnosis is made only after other medical conditions are ruled out. But like fibromyalgia, CFIDS can coexist with other disorders such as depression. It can also resemble other illnesses, such as hypothyroidism.


A study done in England and published in the British Medical Journal found that a lack of exercise in childhood may be linked to a greater risk for developing CFIDS in adulthood. The study looked at 16,567 babies born in April of 1970 and followed them until they were thirty years old.

Symptoms and Diagnosis

Getting a diagnosis of CFIDS can be difficult. There are no laboratory tests or clinical signs that characterize the condition, so doctors must rely on patient reports of specific symptoms. To make matters more challenging, some people are still skeptical that the condition even exists.

But a scientific panel of experts did come up with a set of criteria for CFIDS, which was first published in the Annals of Internal Medicine in March 1988 and revised in the same journal in December 1994. According to those criteria, you may be diagnosed with CFIDS if you have severe chronic fatigue that has lasted longer than six months without the presence of any other medical conditions. At the same time, you must have at least four or more of the following symptoms:

  • Substantial impairment in short-term memory or concentration

  • Sore throat

  • Tender lymph nodes

  • Muscle pain

  • Joint pain in several joints without swelling or redness

  • Headaches that seem different in severity, type, and pattern than those you've experienced in the past

  • Unrefreshing sleep

  • A feeling of malaise after exertion, lasting more than twenty-four hours

Other symptoms of CFIDS include fever, abdominal cramps, allergies, weight loss, rapid pulse, chest pain, night sweats, rash, and chest pain.

But your doctor won't diagnose you with CFIDS if you have another documented illness that can cause chronic fatigue, such as cancer or hepatitis. Interestingly, fibromyalgia was specifically excluded from this rule, so it is possible to have both CFIDS and FMS.

Treating CFIDS

Unfortunately, there is no treatment for CFIDS at the current time. But certain lifestyle strategies can lessen the symptoms. Eating a balanced diet, getting enough sleep, and exercising regularly can all help. Studies show that even moderate amounts of exercise can reduce the symptoms in 75 percent of people with CFIDS. Strategies to minimize stress can help, too. Avoid doing too much, and practice strategies for managing stress, such as meditation or tai chi.

Some people find relief from CFIDS by taking antidepressants. Low-dose tricyclic antidepressants such as Elavil or selective serotonin reuptake inhibitors (SSRIs) such as Prozac have been shown to provide relief by improving the quality of sleep and decreasing the fatigue, not necessarily by relieving depression.

How CFIDS Differs from FMS

Even doctors can't always separate CFIDS from FMS. Patients with CFIDS often experience some pain, while those with FMS are frequently fatigued. As a result, a person diagnosed with fibromyalgia by one doctor may be told he has CFIDS by another, which can be very confusing.

But subtle differences do exist. Fibromyalgia is often linked to an injury or trauma. CFIDS typically starts off like flu. People who have CFIDS typically don't have tender points. And in research, CFIDS sufferers are less likely to have abnormal levels of substance P or serotonin the way fibro sufferers do.

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