What Medicines Treat Chronic Fatigue Syndrome?

Medically Reviewed by Melinda Ratini, MS, DO on February 15, 2023
3 min read

Although there’s no cure for Myalgic Encephalomyelitis/Chronic Fatigue Syndrome (ME/CFS), sometimes called Systemic Exertion Intolerance Disease (SEID), there are over-the-counter and prescription medications that could ease your symptoms.

The symptoms of ME/CFS vary from one person to the next. While fatigue and muscle pain might be your worst, constantly awakening unrested and memory loss might be the biggest problems for someone else.

You and your doctor should try to tackle your toughest symptoms first -- the ones that most interfere with your daily life.

Many people with ME/CFS have some kind of sleep disorder. Getting a good (or at least better) night’s sleep could help you feel less tired during the day.

First, your doctor will probably make sure you have good sleep habits. These include sticking to a regular bedtime and wake time and keeping your bedroom quiet, dark, and cool.

If this doesn’t improve your sleep, they might suggest an over-the-counter sleep aid, such as an over-the-counter antihistamine. While these can help you sleep soundly through the night, the downside is that the effects can last more than 8 hours. This means you could feel drowsy throughout the day, which is exactly what you’re trying to avoid. But not all sleep aids affect everyone in the same way. Talk to your doctor about which type would be best for you and how to take it.

If over-the-counter sleeping pills don’t do the trick, your doctor might try you on a prescription sleeping pill. The goal with these drugs is to get your sleep on track at the lowest possible dose in the shortest amount of time. You aren’t supposed to take them long-term.

Some prescription sleep medications help you get to sleep, such as:

Others that your doctor may prescribe help you stay asleep. For example:

All prescription sleep medications cause side effects. But some of them -- daytime sleepiness, dizziness, unsteadiness, and memory lapse -- are also symptoms of ME/CFS. You and your doctor should weigh the pros and cons. The beneficial effects of many of these medicines wear off in a few weeks, so they are not useful for long-term treatment.

Some people are prescribed stimulants, like the ones used to treat ADHD. These medicines help ease fatigue and problems with memory and concentration. But they are tricky for chronic fatigue syndrome. They may give you energy and focus, which could cause you to get stuck in a cycle of overdoing it and then “crashing.” That would make your condition worse. Some of these stimulants can also be addictive.

Since people with ME/CFS are very sensitive to any medicines that affect the brain, some people experience irritation and agitation taking stimulants, in conventional doses. They should be prescribed in low doses, by doctors who frequently prescribe them and know how to handle the side effects.

If you and your doctor decide to try a stimulant, there are a lot to choose from. They will help you pick the best one for you.

If ME/CFS gives you muscle and joint pain, your doctor might suggest over-the-counter pain relievers, such as ibuprofen, aspirin, or acetaminophen.

If these don’t help, your doctor might prescribe stronger pain medications or refer you to a pain specialist.

Some people with ME/CFS feel dizzy or light-headed whenever they stand or sit upright. If that sounds like you, prescription drugs might help include:

About half of people with ME/CFS develop depression at some point. If you and your doctor decide that an antidepressant is right for you, your doctor will choose one that’s least likely to cause side effects that could worsen your chronic fatigue syndrome. They may also recommend that you go to a counselor for talk therapy.