What Is Malaise?

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In This Article

Malaise is a term used to describe a general feeling of discomfort, lack of well-being, or illness that can come on quickly or develop slowly and accompany almost any health condition. It should not be confused with fatigue, which is extreme tiredness and a lack of energy or motivation. Although fatigue commonly accompanies malaise, malaise is a non-specific symptom in which you simply feel that "something is not right." The uneasiness often is an early sign of an undiagnosed condition.

Types of Malaise

Malaise is more than feeling "blah." It is a significant symptom that doctors use when making a diagnosis or describing a response to a treatment or chronic illness. It even has its own International Classification of Diseases (ICD) code (R53; Malaise and Fatigue) used for reporting by doctors, health insurers, and public health officials.

When malaise occurs as part of a diagnosed illness or condition, a doctor typically will record it "general malaise." Aside from that, there are two other types of malaise:

Isolated general malaise (IGM): An episode of malaise, either short-lived or persistent, with no known etiology (cause). IGM is not meant to suggest a symptom is "all in your head" and is rarely used.

Post-exertional malaise (PEM): An imprecise term used to describe a feeling of unwellness after physical activity.

Post-exertional malaise is characterized by symptoms that tend to worsen 12 to 48 hours after physical activity and persist for days or even weeks.

PEM is a characteristic of myalgic encephalomyelitis/chronic fatigue syndrome (ME/CFS) but can occur on its own without any clear etiology. Underlying causes range from subclinical hypothyroidism and obstructive sleep apnea to polymyalgia rheumatica and bipolar depression.

Associated Conditions

Malaise is a non-specific symptom associated with nearly all infectious, metabolic, and systemic diseases and may also be a side effect of certain medications:

Even jet lag or a hangover can cause short-term malaise.

Causes

There are many theories for why malaise occurs. One is that it is the body's subtle response to proteins known as cytokines that regulate how the body reacts to disease. Although the body produces a multitude of cytokines, their function remains the same: to coordinate cells to repair tissues, maintain tissues, and fight infection or disease.

When cytokines are produced in response to disease, it is believed they affect a structure deep in the brain called the basal ganglia, making it less receptive to the "feel-good" hormone dopamine. The deprivation of dopamine in the brain can result in anhedonia (the inability to feel pleasure) and psychomotor slowing (sluggish thoughts and movements).

Malaise often serves as an early warning sign of an acute illness that is subclinical (with few notable symptoms). It may also be the consequence of increased cytokine activity in people with a chronic illness.

When to Call a Doctor

You should see your doctor if malaise persists for more than a week with or without accompanying symptoms. During your appointment, they will review your symptoms and medical history to help pinpoint the underlying cause. It can be helpful to have ready answers to some of the questions you may be asked, such as:

  • How long have you had malaise?
  • What other symptoms do you have?
  • Do you have any chronic health conditions?
  • Does the malaise come and go, or is it constant?
  • What prescription or over-the-counter medications do you take?
  • Have you taken a trip overseas lately?

You also will likely have a physical exam to check for signs of infection (such as swollen glands) or evidence of anemia (pale skin, brittle nails, or cold hands or feet). Additional tests may be ordered based on these preliminary findings.

Although it may take time to pinpoint the cause, try to be patient and honest with your doctor. The more information you can give, the sooner they can pin down what's causing your malaise and how to treat it.

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