The illness was once known as "yuppie flu" and chronic Epstein-Barr syndrome because of its suspected link to that viral disease. But more than 15 years after chronic fatigue and immune dysfunction syndrome (CFIDS) entered the public eye, researchers learned the disorder is more than burnout among young urban professionals, and it's not clearly linked to any specific viral infection.
Even though the cause is still unknown, CFIDS still carries a stigma, which frustrates people with the illness. At least one million Americans have CFIDS and millions more suffer worldwide. CFIDS is three to four times more common in women than men, but the condition strikes people of all age, racial, ethnic, and socioeconomic groups.
Wherever CFIDS strikes, its major symptom is extreme, long-term fatigue that lasts at least six months, can't be linked to a medical or psychological disorder, isn't the result of prolonged exertion and can't be relieved even with adequate sleep.
To make matters worse, the exhaustion occurs with four or more other symptoms, which may include impaired memory or concentration, sore throat, tender lymph nodes, headaches, joint pain with no swelling or redness, and sleep problems.
For those with CFIDS, life is one long, tiring struggle from one task to the next, with the main goal being getting back to bed. The condition often follows a relapsing and remitting course.
Although there's no cure, health care professionals can treat symptoms with medication and nutritional supplements. Medications are frequently aimed at treating pain, improving sleep, and addressing other symptoms, such as nausea, depression, and anxiety. Supportive therapies are a key component of treatment, and may include counseling, cognitive behavioral therapy, and a low-intensity aerobic exercise program.
Fortunately for sufferers, CFIDS is being taken more seriously now than it was in the 1980s. And people with the syndrome find having a job with flexible hours, a sympathetic family and a good doctor can aid in symptomatic--and emotional--treatment.
Testing has revealed evidence that the immune system remains activated for long periods of time in people with chronic fatigue syndrome. Many recent studies indicate that patients with chronic fatigue syndrome have defects in the ability of cells in their bodies to make energy. Some studies indicate that certain genes are built differently, and that the activity of genes in white blood cells is different in patients with chronic fatigue syndrome.
Many of these abnormalities seem to come and go, and are not permanent conditions. Furthermore, not all of the abnormalities affect every patient with chronic fatigue syndrome.