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Weakness and Fatigue

Overview

Weakness and fatigue are two different things. It's important to know exactly what you mean when you talk with your doctor about how you're feeling. It can help you and your doctor narrow down the possible causes of your symptoms.

Weakness

Weakness is a lack of physical or muscle strength. You feel like you need to use extra effort to move your arms, legs, or other muscles.

General weakness often occurs after you've done too much activity at one time. For instance, maybe you took an extra-long hike. You may feel weak and tired, or your muscles may be sore. These symptoms usually go away within a few days.

In rare cases, muscle weakness may be caused by another health problem. These include:

  • A problem with the minerals (electrolytes) found naturally in the body. Examples are low levels of potassium or sodium.
  • Infections, such as a urinary tract infection or a respiratory infection.
  • Problems with the thyroid gland. This gland regulates the way the body uses energy.
  • Rare nerve disorders, such as Guillain-Barré syndrome.

Muscle weakness that is slowly getting worse needs to be checked by a doctor.

Sudden muscle weakness and loss of function in one area of the body also needs to be checked by a doctor right away. It can be a sign of a stroke or of a problem with the spinal cord or a nerve.

Fatigue

Fatigue is a feeling of tiredness, exhaustion, or lack of energy. You may feel mildly fatigued because of overwork, poor sleep, worry, boredom, or lack of exercise. Any illness may cause fatigue. It usually goes away as the illness clears up. Most of the time, mild fatigue occurs with a health problem that will improve with home treatment. It usually doesn't require a visit to a doctor.

Many medicines can cause weakness or fatigue. The use of alcohol, caffeine, or illegal drugs can cause fatigue.

Fatigue that lasts longer than 2 weeks usually requires a visit to a doctor. This type may be caused by a more serious health problem, such as:

  • A decrease in the amount of the substance that carries oxygen in red blood cells (anemia).
  • Problems with the heart, such as coronary artery disease or heart failure.
  • Metabolic disorders, such as diabetes.
  • Problems with the thyroid gland. It regulates the way the body uses energy.
  • Kidney disease and liver disease.

Fatigue is a common symptom of mental health problems, such as anxiety or depression. If you think that your fatigue may be caused by a mental health problem, see your doctor.

Check Your Symptoms

Are you having problems with weakness or fatigue?
Weakness is a lack of muscle strength and a reduced ability to move your body, no matter how hard you try. Fatigue is a feeling of extreme tiredness or extreme lack of energy.
Yes
Weakness or fatigue
No
Weakness or fatigue
How old are you?
3 years or younger
3 years or younger
4 to 11 years
4 to 11 years
12 years or older
12 years or older
Are you male or female?
Male
Male
Female
Female

The medical assessment of symptoms is based on the body parts you have.

  • If you are transgender or nonbinary, choose the sex that matches the body parts (such as ovaries, testes, prostate, breasts, penis, or vagina) you now have in the area where you are having symptoms.
  • If your symptoms aren’t related to those organs, you can choose the gender you identify with.
  • If you have some organs of both sexes, you may need to go through this triage tool twice (once as "male" and once as "female"). This will make sure that the tool asks the right questions for you.
Do you have sleep problems?
Yes
Sleep problems
No
Sleep problems
Yes
Arrhythmia or change in heart rate
No
Arrhythmia or change in heart rate
Could you be having symptoms of a heart attack?
If you're having a heart attack, there are several areas where you may feel pain or other symptoms.
Yes
Symptoms of heart attack
No
Symptoms of heart attack
Have you had any new neurological symptoms?
Yes
Neurological symptoms
No
Neurological symptoms
Do you have these symptoms right now?
Yes
Neurological symptoms now present
No
Neurological symptoms now present
Have you had the symptoms for 1 week or less?
Yes
Neurological symptoms for 1 week or less
No
Neurological symptoms for 1 week or less
Do you have symptoms of a serious illness?
Yes
Symptoms of serious illness
No
Symptoms of serious illness
Do you have a feeling of general, all-over muscle weakness that does not seem to be getting better?
It's normal to go through a brief period of weakness after a hard workout or a very stressful situation. But that type of weakness should not last.
Yes
Persistent, generalized weakness
No
Persistent, generalized weakness
Is the weakness quickly getting worse (over days)?
Yes
Weakness is quickly getting worse
No
Weakness is quickly getting worse
Has the weakness gotten so bad that you can't complete your daily activities?
Yes
Unable to complete daily activities because of weakness
No
Unable to complete daily activities because of weakness
Do you think that the weakness or fatigue is related to a chronic illness that you already have?
A few examples are diabetes, cancer, multiple sclerosis, and kidney disease.
Yes
Weakness or fatigue may be related to chronic illness
No
Weakness or fatigue may be related to chronic illness
Is the weakness or fatigue worse than normal?
Yes
Weakness or fatigue is worse than normal
No
Weakness or fatigue is worse than normal
Do you think that a medicine may be causing the weakness or fatigue?
Think about whether the weakness or fatigue started after you began using a new medicine or a higher dose of a medicine.
Yes
Symptoms may be caused by a medicine
No
Symptoms may be caused by a medicine
Do you think that a mental health problem could be causing the fatigue?
Fatigue is a common symptom of problems such as depression, stress, anxiety, grief, and eating disorders.
Yes
Fatigue may be caused by mental health problem
No
Fatigue may be caused by mental health problem
In the past few weeks, have you been losing weight without trying?
Yes
Has been losing weight without trying
No
Has been losing weight without trying
Has the weakness or fatigue lasted more than 2 weeks and made it harder to do your daily activities?
Yes
Symptoms for more than 2 weeks and difficulty with daily activities
No
Symptoms for more than 2 weeks and difficulty with daily activities

Many things can affect how your body responds to a symptom and what kind of care you may need. These include:

  • Your age. Babies and older adults tend to get sicker quicker.
  • Your overall health. If you have a condition such as diabetes, HIV, cancer, or heart disease, you may need to pay closer attention to certain symptoms and seek care sooner.
  • Medicines you take. Certain medicines, such as blood thinners (anticoagulants), medicines that suppress the immune system like steroids or chemotherapy, herbal remedies, or supplements can cause symptoms or make them worse.
  • Recent health events, such as surgery or injury. These kinds of events can cause symptoms afterwards or make them more serious.
  • Your health habits and lifestyle, such as eating and exercise habits, smoking, alcohol or drug use, sexual history, and travel.

Try Home Treatment

You have answered all the questions. Based on your answers, you may be able to take care of this problem at home.

  • Try home treatment to relieve the symptoms.
  • Call your doctor if symptoms get worse or you have any concerns (for example, if symptoms are not getting better as you would expect). You may need care sooner.

Symptoms of serious illness may include:

  • A severe headache.
  • A stiff neck.
  • Mental changes, such as feeling confused or much less alert.
  • Extreme fatigue (to the point where it's hard for you to function).
  • Shaking chills.

Symptoms of serious illness in a baby may include the following:

  • The baby is limp and floppy like a rag doll.
  • The baby doesn't respond at all to being held, touched, or talked to.
  • The baby is hard to wake up.

Symptoms of a heart attack may include:

  • Chest pain or pressure, or a strange feeling in the chest.
  • Sweating.
  • Shortness of breath.
  • Nausea or vomiting.
  • Pain, pressure, or a strange feeling in the back, neck, jaw, or upper belly, or in one or both shoulders or arms.
  • Lightheadedness or sudden weakness.
  • A fast or irregular heartbeat.

For men and women, the most common symptom is chest pain or pressure. But women are somewhat more likely than men to have other symptoms, like shortness of breath, nausea, and back or jaw pain.

Neurological symptoms—which may be signs of a problem with the nervous system—can affect many body functions. Symptoms may include:

  • Numbness, weakness, or lack of movement in your face, arm, or leg, especially on only one side of your body.
  • Trouble seeing in one or both eyes.
  • Trouble speaking.
  • Confusion or trouble understanding simple statements.
  • Problems with balance or coordination (for example, falling down or dropping things).
  • Seizures.

Heartbeat changes can include:

  • A faster or slower heartbeat than is normal for you. This would include a pulse rate of more than 120 beats per minute (when you are not exercising) or less than 50 beats per minute (unless that is normal for you).
  • A heart rate that does not have a steady pattern.
  • Skipped beats.
  • Extra beats.

Many prescription and nonprescription drugs can cause weakness and fatigue. A few examples are:

  • Antianxiety medicines.
  • Antidepressants.
  • High blood pressure medicines.

Seek Care Now

Based on your answers, you may need care right away. The problem is likely to get worse without medical care.

  • Call your doctor now to discuss the symptoms and arrange for care.
  • If you cannot reach your doctor or you don't have one, seek care in the next hour.
  • You do not need to call an ambulance unless:
    • You cannot travel safely either by driving yourself or by having someone else drive you.
    • You are in an area where heavy traffic or other problems may slow you down.

Seek Care Today

Based on your answers, you may need care soon. The problem probably will not get better without medical care.

  • Call your doctor today to discuss the symptoms and arrange for care.
  • If you cannot reach your doctor or you don't have one, seek care today.
  • If it is evening, watch the symptoms and seek care in the morning.
  • If the symptoms get worse, seek care sooner.

Call 911 Now

Based on your answers, you need emergency care.

Call 911 or other emergency services now.

After you call 911, the operator may tell you to chew 1 adult-strength (325 mg) or 2 to 4 low-dose (81 mg) aspirin. Wait for an ambulance. Do not try to drive yourself.

Sometimes people don't want to call 911. They may think that their symptoms aren't serious or that they can just get someone else to drive them. Or they might be concerned about the cost. But based on your answers, the safest and quickest way for you to get the care you need is to call 911 for medical transport to the hospital.

Call 911 Now

Based on your answers, you need emergency care.

Call 911 or other emergency services now.

Sometimes people don't want to call 911. They may think that their symptoms aren't serious or that they can just get someone else to drive them. Or they might be concerned about the cost. But based on your answers, the safest and quickest way for you to get the care you need is to call 911 for medical transport to the hospital.

Make an Appointment

Based on your answers, the problem may not improve without medical care.

  • Make an appointment to see your doctor in the next 1 to 2 weeks.
  • If appropriate, try home treatment while you are waiting for the appointment.
  • If symptoms get worse or you have any concerns, call your doctor. You may need care sooner.
Sleep Problems, Age 12 and Older
Change in Heartbeat

Self-Care

If you have generalized weakness and fatigue along with other symptoms, look closely at those symptoms. Home treatment for your other symptoms usually will improve your weakness and fatigue. Mild generalized weakness and fatigue that occur with a viral illness usually improve with home treatment. Here are some things you can try.

  • If you can, stay home when you are sick.

    Try to stay away from others and get some extra sleep.

  • Go slowly.

    Return to your usual activities slowly to avoid making the fatigue last longer.

  • Stay hydrated.

    Be sure to drink extra fluids to avoid dehydration.

  • Listen to your body.

    Switch between rest and exercise. Gradually increasing your exercise may help decrease your fatigue.

  • Limit medicines that might add to fatigue.

    Medicines like cold and allergy medicines often cause fatigue.

  • Improve your diet.

    Eat a balanced diet to increase your energy level. Don't skip meals.

  • Beware of substances that may cause fatigue.

    Reduce your use of alcohol or other drugs, such as caffeine or nicotine.

  • Cut back on screen time.

    Spend that time with friends or try new activities to break the fatigue cycle.

  • Get a good night's sleep.

    This may be the first step toward controlling fatigue.

    • Try to limit sound and light disturbances.
    • Avoid eating just before you go to bed.
    • Avoid using screens before you go to bed. Use your bed only for sleeping.

When to call for help during self-care

Call a doctor if any of the following occur during self-care at home:

  • Symptoms occur more often or are more severe.

Preparing For Your Appointment

Credits

Current as of: December 13, 2021

Author: Healthwise Staff
Medical Review:
William H. Blahd Jr. MD, FACEP - Emergency Medicine
Kathleen Romito MD - Family Medicine
E. Gregory Thompson MD - Internal Medicine
Adam Husney MD - Family Medicine