Risks for Developing ME/CFS in College Students Following Infectious Mononucleosis: A Prospective Cohort Study


Leonard A Jason, PhD, Joseph Cotler, PhD, Mohammed F Islam, PhD, Madison Sunnquist, PhD, Ben Z Katz, MD

Published: 25 December 2020



Myalgic encephalomyelitis/chronic fatigue syndrome (ME/CFS) involves severe fatigue, unrefreshing sleep, and cognitive impairment, leading to functional difficulties; prior studies have not evaluated risk factors with behavioral and immune data collected prior to developing ME/CFS.. Up to 5% of university students develop infectious mononucleosis (IM) annually, and 9-12% meet criteria for ME/CFS six months later. We sought to determine predictors of ME/CFS.


We enrolled college students at the start of the school year (Time 1), identified those who developed IM (Time 2) and followed them for 6 months (Time 3), identifying three groups: those who developed ME/CFS, those who developed severe ME/CFS (meeting >1 set of criteria) and those who were asymptomatic. We conducted 8 behavioral and psychological surveys and analyzed cytokines at three time points.


238 of the 4501 students (5.3%) developed IM; 6 months later, 55 of the 238 (23%) met criteria for ME/CFS and 157 (66%) were asymptomatic. 67 of the 157 asymptomatic students served as controls. Students with severe-ME/CFS were compared to students who were asymptomatic at three time points. The former group was not different from the latter group at Time 1 (prior to developing IM) in stress, coping, anxiety or depression, but were different in several behavioral measures and had significantly lower levels of IL-6 and IL-13. At Time 2 (when they developed IM), the two ME/CFS groups tended to have more autonomic complaints and behavioral symptoms while the severe- ME/CFS group had higher levels of IL-12 and lower levels of IL-13 than the recovered group.


At baseline, those who developed ME/CFS had more physical symptoms and immune irregularities, but not more psychological symptoms, than those who recovered.

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