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Wednesday, 20 May, 1998, 20:52 GMT 21:52 UK
ME sufferers win recognition
Man with cold
ME starts like flu, but does not go away
Myalgic encephalomyelitis, or chronic fatigue syndrome, has only been recognised by doctors in recent years, after originally being dismissed as "yuppie flu". The first symptoms are, in fact, similar to flu, but they do not go away and, in many cases, become worse. Some experts remain to be convinced of its existence, mainly because no single cause has been identified and symptoms often vary for different patients.

What are the symptoms?

The main symptoms are debilitating fatigue, muscle pain, mental fogginess, painful lymph nodes and, frequently, stomach pains. The cause of chronic fatigue cannot be explained by other conditions, such as depression, and it does not improve substantially after periods of rest.

Some patients also have difficulty in concentrating, short-term memory impairment, sore throats, headaches and insomnia.

Some people have such severe symptoms that they are confined to bed while others only suffer fatigue when they come up against stressful situations.

What causes ME?

Nobody knows the cause of ME, but scientists are investigating whether it is related to a virus, pollution, the failure of the immune system or is a genetic disorder.

Pint of beer
ME sufferers should steer clear of alcohol
What is known is that the condition causes the collapse of the immune system. It is not clear why this happens, but stress seems to make it worse.

It can be triggered by a stressful event or viral infection, but it may previously have been latent in the body. Most scientists believe stress is not the primary cause of ME, but experts differ about the influence of psychological factors on the illness.

Who suffers from ME?

Around 75% of ME sufferers are women, but some experts say this proportion is in line with other immune-related disorders. People on higher incomes are more likely to be recorded as having ME than low earners, but doctors believe this may be because they are more persistent in getting their condition diagnosed.

Is any treatment available?

Experts say the following can alleviate symptoms:

  • Avoiding stress. Failure to avoid stress can make symptoms worse

  • Taking drugs with serotonin, such as Prozac, can help some patients with fatigue and depression, but low doses are necessary as ME sufferers are more sensitive to medication than others. Other drugs can be used to treat specific symptoms, such as muscle pain

  • Exercising can help, but patients must not overdo it

  • Avoiding alcohol, caffeine, sugar and nutrasweet is also recommended. Many ME sufferers develop senstivity to some foods, which they should avoid

    How long does it last?

    Patients tend to have ME for between three to six years, although some recover after a year and others never get better. Some people suffer bouts of ME. It does not seem to be contagious and is not considered a terminal disease.

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