Cookies on the Bupa website

We use cookies to help us understand ease of use and relevance of content. This ensures that we can give you the best experience on our website. If you continue, we'll assume that you are happy to receive cookies for this purpose. Find out more about cookies



Chronic fatigue syndrome

Chronic fatigue syndrome (CFS) is a condition that causes severe mental and physical tiredness and interferes with your daily life. It’s also known as myalgic encephalomyelitis (ME) and post-viral fatigue syndrome (PVFS).

Chronic fatigue syndrome causes unexplained severe tiredness after activity and doesn't go away when you rest.

Around 250,000 people in the UK have chronic fatigue syndrome. It's more common in women than men, and is most common in young to middle-aged adults. Chronic fatigue syndrome can affect children too, usually between the ages of 13 and 15.

Chronic fatigue syndrome affects people in different ways and your symptoms can fluctuate. You may have periods when they get better, and other days when they are more severe. If your symptoms are mild, you may be able to carry on with work or study. However, you may have to give up leisure and social activities to spend more time resting. If your symptoms are severe, you can become seriously disabled and housebound.

Read more Close


  • Symptoms Symptoms of chronic fatigue syndrome

    Symptoms of chronic fatigue syndrome can start suddenly or may develop gradually. The condition causes extreme tiredness that is different to everyday tiredness. It can make you less able to cope with levels of activity that were previously normal for you, in your work, school or social life. Even everyday physical activity, such as taking a shower, can make you feel exhausted.

    Other symptoms of chronic fatigue syndrome can include:

    • pain in your muscles and joints
    • headaches
    • difficulty sleeping
    • painful glands in your neck or armpits
    • a sore throat
    • forgetfulness, confusion and difficulty concentrating
    • feeling your heartbeat thumping in your chest (palpitations)
    • irritable bowel syndrome (IBS) symptoms, such as pain in your abdomen (tummy)
    • dizziness
    • sweating
    • problems with your balance

    Over time, you may become depressed or have mood swings.

    Your symptoms may not come on until a day or more after you do some activity, and can last for days or even weeks. How severe they are can also vary throughout the day, and some days may be worse than others. Most people with chronic fatigue syndrome find that their symptoms come and go, and often return after an illness or time of stress.

    If you have any of these symptoms, see your GP.

  • Diagnosis Diagnosis of chronic fatigue syndrome

    Chronic fatigue syndrome is a difficult condition to diagnose as there isn't a specific test for it. Your GP will ask about your symptoms and examine you. He or she may also ask you about your medical history.

    There are many other conditions that can cause symptoms similar to those of chronic fatigue syndrome. Therefore, your GP will do some tests to exclude other possible causes of your symptoms before he or she diagnoses you with chronic fatigue syndrome. Generally your GP won’t diagnose you with chronic fatigue syndrome until you have had symptoms for more than four months (three months in children).

    In the meantime, your GP will give you advice about how to manage your symptoms.

    Your GP may refer you to a doctor who specialises in chronic fatigue syndrome. If your child has the condition, your GP may refer him or her to a paediatrician (a doctor who specialises in children’s health).

  • Treatment Treatment of chronic fatigue syndrome

    Treatment for chronic fatigue syndrome aims to manage your symptoms and gradually improve your ability to live your life as usual. Therefore, your treatment will depend on your specific symptoms – there is no single treatment that works for everyone.

    Your GP or specialist will review your treatment regularly.


    Activity management is a way of managing your lifestyle. It can help you to prioritise certain activities and find a level of physical and mental activity that you're comfortable with. You can then set yourself goals to make gradual increases, while making sure you get enough rest after any activity. It can ensure you don't do any large bursts of activity that can set you back.

    Another technique in which you make the most of your available energy is called pacing. Pacing involves organising your day into periods of activity and rest. It aims to help you to better understand your energy levels, types of activity and rest. You can then set realistic goals and get a sense of control over your day. However, at present there isn't enough evidence to prove that this works.

    It's important to eat a healthy, balanced diet to give you the energy and nourishment you need. In particular, aim to eat regularly and include starchy foods that release their energy slowly in your meals and snacks. Some people have intolerances to certain food or drinks, or develop symptoms of IBS. It may be worth keeping a food diary to see if any foods trigger your symptoms. It’s a good idea to avoid fatty or sugary foods, especially if you're unable to move around much.

    If you have problems sleeping, try to get into a routine by going to bed at the same time every night. Try a warm, relaxing bath or a milky drink before you go to bed.


    If you need pain relief, you can take over-the-counter painkillers such as paracetamol or ibuprofen. A low dose of a type of antidepressant called a tricyclic (such as amitriptyline) can help if you have problems with sleep or muscle pain. You don't need to have depression to be able to take these. However, it's not unusual to develop depression if you have chronic fatigue syndrome. If you’re already taking an antidepressant, your doctor may recommend you take a higher dose or a different type.

    For all medicines, always read the patient information leaflet and if you have any questions, ask your pharmacist or GP for advice.

    Talking therapies

    Cognitive behavioural therapy (CBT) is a short-term psychological treatment that helps to challenge negative thoughts, feelings and behaviours that may show down your recovery. It can be especially helpful if you’re struggling to manage and pace your physical and mental activity. CBT may help you to develop coping mechanisms that can help you to carry on with your daily life and manage your recovery.

    If you're referred for CBT, it doesn't mean your doctor believes your condition is 'all in your mind'. There is evidence that shows CBT is effective at treating chronic fatigue syndrome and improving symptoms, no matter what the cause.

    Physical therapies

    Graded exercise therapy (GET) means starting an activity that you can do comfortably, such as walking, and increasing your level of activity every few days. It’s important that you only have treatment with a trained GET therapist. Research shows that it can reduce tiredness and increase fitness and stamina.

    Complementary therapies

    Some people with chronic fatigue syndrome find complementary therapies, such as relaxation therapy, herbal remedies, massage, homeopathy and various food supplements, helpful. However, there isn't enough scientific evidence to show that they work.

  • Private GP appointments

    With our GP services, we aim to give you an appointment the next day, subject to availability. Find out more today.

  • Causes Causes of chronic fatigue syndrome

    The exact reasons why you may develop chronic fatigue syndrome aren't fully understood at present.

    Some people develop it after having an infection, such as glandular fever or flu. There are several theories of what causes it. For example, it could be linked to disorders of your immune system (which helps your body fight infection) or your hormonal system. Many people who develop chronic fatigue syndrome were previously fit and active.

  • Living with chronic fatigue syndrome Living with chronic fatigue syndrome

    Chronic fatigue syndrome affects people differently. Many people find that their symptoms improve over time and some recover completely. Others find that their lives continue to be affected and they need a great deal of support.

    Having chronic fatigue syndrome can have a major effect on many aspects of your life including relationships with your loved ones. It can be frustrating and upsetting if people don't understand how exhausted you feel. You may find it helps to talk to other people who are affected by chronic fatigue syndrome. Ask your GP if he or she recommends any support groups. These groups may also be able to give you practical advice and tips. For example, they may be able give you advice about any financial help you may be entitled to if you can’t stay in work.

  • FAQs FAQs

    My child has chronic fatigue syndrome and I've heard that vaccinations can make it worse. Is this true?


    Some people have reported that vaccines have caused their chronic fatigue syndrome symptoms to get worse or to come back (relapse). However, it's important to balance this risk with the consequences of not having the vaccine.


    It’s generally not a good idea for you or your child to be vaccinated if you have a fever or an infection. This is because it can sometimes cause you to feel unwell.

    However, if your child has chronic fatigue syndrome, it doesn't necessarily mean he or she shouldn’t have vaccinations. The risks of not being vaccinated are likely to be far greater. Ask your GP for more information.

    How much of chronic fatigue syndrome is a psychological condition and how much is a physical condition?


    Doctors don’t fully understand the exact reasons why you may develop chronic fatigue syndrome at present. But it's virtually impossible to separate the psychological and physical causes and effects of chronic fatigue syndrome. Psychological symptoms can have underlying physical causes and vice versa.


    A number of factors may be involved in the development of chronic fatigue syndrome.

    Research first focused on the condition as a disorder of the mind (a psychological or psychiatric condition), but this doesn’t fully explain it. Alongside extreme tiredness, you’re likely to have physical symptoms such as a sore throat, muscle and joint pain and enlarged glands in your neck. Doctors don’t know what causes these wide-ranging symptoms. Most agree that it’s wrong to call chronic fatigue syndrome a psychiatric illness just because the symptoms are medically unexplained.

    Infection may play a role in triggering chronic fatigue syndrome. Many people (but not all) who have had viral meningitis, viral hepatitis or glandular fever develop chronic fatigue syndrome afterwards. Other infections, including flu and herpes, also seem to trigger the condition in some people. This suggests that chronic fatigue syndrome could be associated with the immune system.

    Other possible causes include problems with hormones or your central nervous system (brain and spinal cord). Adults who have a mental health condition, such as depression, are more likely to develop chronic fatigue syndrome too.

    The World Health Organization has categorised chronic fatigue syndrome as a neurological condition. However, more research is needed to find out exactly what causes chronic fatigue syndrome. Until then, the National Institute for Health and Care Excellence (NICE) encourages doctors to use a combination of approaches to treating and researching chronic fatigue syndrome.

    How can a doctor be sure I have chronic fatigue syndrome?


    It's very difficult to diagnose chronic fatigue syndrome. There are no tests to confirm it because the cause, or causes, are still uncertain.


    Your doctor will examine you and do some tests to rule out other conditions that have similar symptoms to chronic fatigue syndrome. These include an underactive thyroid, anaemia, diabetes and hepatitis.

    Once your doctor has ruled out other conditions and you have had symptoms for four months or more, he or she may make a diagnosis. If your child has symptoms for three months or more, a paediatrician (a doctor who specialises in children's health) may diagnose chronic fatigue syndrome.

  • Resources Resources

    Further information


    • Chronic fatigue syndrome/myalgic encephalomyelitis (or encephalopathy). National Institute for Health and Care Excellence (NICE), August 2007.
    • Chronic fatigue syndrome. Medscape., published 13 July 2012
    • Scottish good practice statement on ME-CFS. NHS Scotland., published November 2010
    • Chronic fatigue syndrome (CFS) – helping your child to get better: information for parents, carers and anyone who works with young people. Royal College of Psychiatrists., published March 2012
    • Chronic fatigue syndrome and myalgic encephalopathy (CFS/ME). Map of Medicine., published 21 January 2013
    • Chronic fatigue syndrome myalgic encephalomyelitis: a primer for clinical practitioners. International Association for Chronic Fatigue Syndrome/Myalgic Encephalomyelitis., published 2012
    • Chronic fatigue syndrome. BMJ Clinical Evidence., published March 2010
    • Recognition and management of chronic fatigue syndrome. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention., accessed 6 January 2014
    • Chronic fatigue syndrome. PatientPlus., published 20 April 2010
    • Chronic fatigue syndrome/ME and diet. British Dietetic Association., published January 2012
    • Sleeping well. Royal College of Psychiatrists., published October 2013
    • Get help. Action for Me., accessed 6 January 2014
    • World Health Organization. Weekly epidemiological record. Wkly Epidemiol Rec 2006; 81(13):119–20.
    • Vaccines. National Institute of Allergy and Infectious Diseases., published 3 April 2012
    • ICD-10 version: 2010. World Health Organization., published 2010
  • Has our information helped you? Tell us what you think about this page

    We’d love to know what you think about what you’ve just been reading and looking at – we’ll use it to improve our information. If you’d like to give us some feedback, our short form below will take just a few minutes to complete. And if there's a question you want to ask that hasn't been answered here, please submit it to us. Although we can't respond to specific questions directly, we’ll aim to include the answer to it when we next review this topic.

    Let us know what you think using our short feedback form
    Ask us a question
  • Related information Related information

  • Author information Author information

    Reviewed by Rachael Mayfield-Blake, Bupa Health Information Team, February 2014.

    Let us know what you think using our short feedback form
    Ask us a question

About our health information

At Bupa we produce a wealth of free health information for you and your family. We believe that trustworthy information is essential in helping you make better decisions about your health and care. Here are just a few of the ways in which our core editorial principles have been recognised.

  • Information Standard

    We are certified by the Information Standard. This quality mark identifies reliable, trustworthy producers and sources of health information.
    Information standard logo
  • HONcode

    This site complies with the HONcode standard for trustworthy health information.
    HON code logo

What our readers say about us

But don't just take our word for it; here's some feedback from our readers.

Simple and easy to use website - not alarming, just helpful.

It’s informative but not too detailed. I like that it’s factual and realistic about the conditions and the procedures involved. It’s also easy to navigate to areas that you specifically want without having to read all the information.

Good information, easy to find, trustworthy.

Our core principles

All our health content is produced in line with our core editorial principles – readable, reliable, relevant – which are represented by our diagram.

An image showing or editorial principals

                  Click to open full-size image

The ‘3Rs’ encompass everything we believe good health information should be. From tweets to in-depth reports, videos to quizzes, every piece of content we produce has these as its foundation.


In a nutshell, our information is jargon-free, concise and accessible. We know our audience and we meet their health information needs, helping them to take the next step in their health and wellbeing journey.


We use the best quality and most up-to-date evidence to produce our information. Our process is transparent and validated by experts – both our users and medical specialists.


We know that our users want the right information at the right time, in the way that suits them. So we review our content at least every three years to keep it fresh. And we’re embracing new technology and social media so they can get it whenever and wherever they choose.

Our accreditation

Here are just a few of the ways in which the quality of our information has been recognised.

  • The Information Standard certification scheme

    You will see the Information Standard quality mark on our content. This is a certification programme, supported by NHS England, that was developed to ensure that public-facing health and care information is created to a set of best practice principles.

    It uses only recognised evidence sources and presents the information in a clear and balanced way. The Information Standard quality mark is a quick and easy way for you to identify reliable and trustworthy producers and sources of information.

    Certified by the Information Standard as a quality provider of health and social care information. Bupa shall hold responsibility for the accuracy of the information they publish and neither the Scheme Operator nor the Scheme Owner shall have any responsibility whatsoever for costs, losses or direct or indirect damages or costs arising from inaccuracy of information or omissions in information published on the website on behalf of Bupa.

  • Plain English Campaign

    Our website is approved by the Plain English Campaign and carries their Crystal Mark for clear information. In 2010, we won the award for best website.

    Website approved by Plain English Campaign.

  • British Medical Association (BMA) patient information awards

    We have received a number of BMA awards for different assets over the years. Most recently, in 2013, we received a 'commended' award for our online shared decision making hub.

Contact us

If you have any feedback on our health information, we would love to hear from you. Please contact us via email: Or you can write to us:

Health Content Team
Bupa House
15-19 Bloomsbury Way

Find out more Close

Legal disclaimer

This information was published by Bupa's Health Content Team and is based on reputable sources of medical evidence. It has been reviewed by appropriate medical or clinical professionals. Photos are only for illustrative purposes and do not reflect every presentation of a condition. The information contained on this page and in any third party websites referred to on this page is not intended nor implied to be a substitute for professional medical advice nor is it intended to be for medical diagnosis or treatment. Third party websites are not owned or controlled by Bupa and any individual may be able to access and post messages on them. Bupa is not responsible for the content or availability of these third party websites. We do not accept advertising on this page. For more details on how we produce our content and its sources, visit the 'About our health information' section.

^ We may record or monitor our calls.