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Biology 103
2003 Second Paper
On Serendip

Chronic Fatigue Syndrome: What It Is and My Own Personal Struggle

Elizabeth Bryan

Everyone, especially college students (and their professors), gets a little worn out sometimes. Even weeks before vacations begin, students start counting down the days until they get to finally sleep in and forget about the stresses of life for awhile. Chronic Fatigue Syndrome, however, is vastly different. It is a debilitating disorder that can prohibit the sufferer from accomplishing even the most basic, everyday tasks.
The symptoms of Chronic Fatigue Syndrome are various. The most obvious are constant tiredness and feeling easily exhausted. Other symptoms include frequent headaches, joint and muscle pain, chills without a high fever, depression, difficulty with concentration, and tender lymph glands. Because many of these symptoms are common to other illnesses, it makes Chronic Fatigue Syndrome all the more difficult to categorize and diagnose (1).

While Chronic Fatigue Syndrome has only recently gained publicity, it isn't a new problem. What is new is its name. Researchers chose the name because it is believed that the illness is not one single disease but a culmination of many factors (1).

It is believed that at least two thirds of people suffering from Chronic Fatigue Syndrome are women, primarily Caucasian women of a middle class socioeconomic background. Most people with Chronic Fatigue Syndrome relate the onset of it to a particular infection, which most often includes respiratory or gastrointestinal illness, influenza, bronchitis, sore throats, colds or diarrhea, mononucleosis, hepatitis, or jaundice. In my case, I was diagnosed after a series of having Strep Throat three times over the course of one winter. Most people recover completely from these infections, as I did, however are left feeling very weak, tired, and depressed even long after other symptoms of the infections have disappeared (2).

A common factor in Chronic Fatigue Syndrome is allergy. Chronic Fatigue Syndrome patients have twice the number of allergic skin reactions as people without the illness (2). I've always suffered from allergies as a child, and at one point had psoriasis, a skin condition. Such experiences are not uncommon amongst people with Chronic Fatigue Syndrome.

Various studies have been conducted concerning the immune systems of patients with Chronic Fatigue Syndrome, and differences have been found between sufferers of the illness and healthy individuals. Several studies have shown that certain aspects of the immune system in Chronic Fatigue Syndrome sufferers behave abnormally. For example, the body produces two chemicals called Interleukin—2 and Gamma Interferon, for the purpose of battling against cancer and infectious agents. It was discovered in patients with Chronic Fatigue Syndrome that these chemicals were not produced in normal amounts. In addition, cells referred to as "natural killer cells", which also battle against infections, were found in vastly reduced numbers (2).

To combat against these problems, doctors have experimented with giving patients injections of Interferon. However, this procedure is actually known to cause fever, fatigue, exhaustion, muscle pain, and headaches—which would in effect contribute to and even worsen the symptoms of the Chronic Fatigue Syndrome itself.

In my experience, there has been a stigma attached with having Chronic Fatigue Syndrome. Oftentimes people write sufferers of the syndrome off as merely being lazy. Such reactions are especially hard to deal with while already suffering from the pains of the illness. Sadly, I've even come across this in college. I've been in classes with students who have come down with mononucleosis, and when they are absent teachers are very sympathetic. However, I've found that in some cases if I miss a class, and then explain to the professor about having Chronic Fatigue Syndrome, they are less apt to accept it as a reasonable excuse. The symptoms of mononucleosis and Chronic Fatigue Syndrome are so very similar, however this goes unrealized by many people. This is an unfortunate reality of having Chronic Fatigue Syndrome, and is, sadly, not uncommon.

While Chronic Fatigue Syndrome has been around for a long time, significant research has only started to be conducted. This proves to serve as a beacon of hope for Chronic Fatigue Syndrome sufferers. While many people are uneducated about the syndrome, the more research that goes on and the greater the conclusions that are drawn about the illness, the more publicity the illness will receive, and hopefully sufferers of the illness will no longer be looked down upon. As recently as twenty years ago, people suffering from Chronic Fatigue Syndrome were oftentimes referred to psychiatrists, because so many medical professionals believed the illness to be purely psychological. Fortunately now it has been realized amongst the medical community that the illness is most legitimate, and hopefully the quest to find out more information about the syndrome will gain even more momentum in years to come.


1) Straus, Stephen. Chronic Fatigue Syndrome. Washington, D.C. NIH Publishing. 1991.
2) Hawkins, Joseph. Medical Questions. New York, N.Y. Brookings Publishing Co. 1994.

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