Malaise

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What is malaise?

If you find yourself saying, “I don’t feel good,” or “I don’t feel right,” you are describing malaise. Malaise is a general feeling of being unwell, either emotionally or physically, or a combination of the two. Malaise can also mean a feeling of overall weakness, a feeling of discomfort, or a feeling like you have an illness. Almost any medical or emotional condition can bring on feelings of malaise.

Long-term (chronic) conditions, such as anemia (low red blood cell count) or hypothyroidism (underactive thyroid), may cause malaise in addition to such conditions as infections, cancers, arthritis, kidney diseases, lung diseases, or other illnesses. Short-term (acute) conditions, such as a urinary tract infection or viral respiratory infection, may also lead to malaise.

Not feeling well can be associated with depression and fatigue. Depression is defined as feeling blue, miserable or sad. You may occasionally experience mild depression and that is normal. Fatigue is characterized by a lack of energy and feeling tired. Again, you may occasionally experience mild fatigue and this is normal. However, long-term depression, often called clinical depression, and chronic fatigue can be characterized as malaise and may indicate more serious emotional or psychological problems.

Stress, lack of sleep, and poor diet are all factors that can contribute to simply not feeling well.

Malaise that is related to an acute condition, such as an illness that is caused by an infection, may require emergency attention. Seek immediate medical care (call 911) if you experience malaise along with other symptoms, such as:

  • Chest pain or pressure
  • Difficulty breathing

Seek prompt medical care if you experience enduring malaise to determine whether your malaise is related to a chronic medical condition.

What other symptoms might occur with malaise?

Malaise may accompany other symptoms that vary depending on the underlying disease, disorder or condition. Malaise that is related to a physical disorder may differ from malaise that is related to an emotional or psychological condition in terms of the symptoms it causes.

Physical symptoms that may occur along with malaise

Malaise may accompany other symptoms affecting the body including:

  • Enlarged lymph nodes
  • Fever and chills
  • Joint pains
  • Missed or irregular menstrual periods
  • Severe fatigue

Other symptoms that may occur along with malaise

Malaise may accompany symptoms related to an emotional or psychological disturbance including:

  • Changes in mood, personality or behavior
  • Depression
  • Difficulty with memory, thinking, talking, comprehension, writing or reading
  • Fatigue
  • Lack of energy

Serious symptoms that might indicate a life-threatening condition

In some cases, malaise may be a symptom of a life-threatening condition that should be immediately evaluated in an emergency setting. Seek immediate medical care (call 911) if you, or someone you are with, have any of these life-threatening symptoms including:

  • Difficulty breathing
  • High fever (higher than 101 degrees Fahrenheit)
  • Inability to eat or drink
  • Paralysis
  • Severe abdominal pain or cramping

What causes malaise?

Malaise can result from a wide variety of physical and emotional disturbances.

Emotional or psychological causes of malaise

Malaise may be caused by emotional or psychological disturbances including:

  • Depression
  • Fatigue
  • Stress

Physical causes of malaise

Malaise can also be caused by chronic physical disorders including:

  • Anemia (low red blood cell count)
  • Bacterial infections
  • Connective tissue diseases (disorders of the body’s connective tissue, such as lupus)
  • Fibromyalgia (chronic condition that causes pain, stiffness and tenderness)
  • Hypothyroidism (underactive thyroid)
  • Lung disease

Serious or life-threatening causes of malaise

In some cases, malaise may be a symptom of a serious condition that should be immediately evaluated by a healthcare provider. These include:

  • Cancers
  • Sepsis (life-threatening bacterial blood infection)

How do doctors diagnose and treat malaise?

Malaise is very vague, so seeing your doctor is the best way to get to the bottom of the reason for feeling unwell.

When should I see a doctor if I have vague symptoms of feeling unwell?

Because feeling unwell can be a symptom of a variety of problems, it’s important to see your doctor for a diagnosis. Contact your doctor if malaise persists for more than a few days or if it is severe.

How will the doctor examine me for malaise?

To diagnose your condition, your doctor will review your medical history and perform a physical exam. Various laboratory tests and diagnostic studies may be ordered to identify or exclude serious abnormalities. Your doctor will also ask you several questions related to how you are feeling including:

  • How long have you been not feeling well?
  • Do you feel depressed or anxious?
  • How are you sleeping?
  • When did you first notice the feelings of fatigue?
  • Are you in any physical pain or discomfort?
  • Do you have any other symptoms?
  • What medications are you taking?

Malaise treatment

Since malaise is a symptom of another problem, treatment relies entirely on the underlying cause. Physical causes may respond to medications, physical therapy, or even surgery, depending on the cause. Counseling with various forms of talk therapy often helps mental or emotional causes of malaise. In some cases, medications, such as antidepressants, may be necessary to resolve the problem.

What are the potential complications of malaise?

Complications of malaise will depend on the underlying disease or disorder. Malaise as a symptom of an emotional or psychological disturbance could lead to an inability to participate in daily tasks. Because malaise can be due to serious diseases, failure to seek treatment can result in serious complications and permanent damage. Once the underlying cause is diagnosed, it is important for you to follow the treatment plan that you and your healthcare professional design specifically for you to reduce the risk of potential complications including:

  • Difficulty performing daily tasks
  • Inability to participate normally in activities
  • Severe discomfort or pain
  • Spread of infection
  • Withdrawal or depression

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Medical Reviewer: William C. Lloyd III, MD, FACS
Last Review Date: 2020 Dec 2
THIS TOOL DOES NOT PROVIDE MEDICAL ADVICE. It is intended for informational purposes only. It is not a substitute for professional medical advice, diagnosis or treatment. Never ignore professional medical advice in seeking treatment because of something you have read on the site. If you think you may have a medical emergency, immediately call your doctor or dial 911.
  1. Fatigue. Medline Plus, a service of the National Library of Medicine National Institutes of Health. http://www.nlm.nih.gov/medlineplus/ency/article/003088.htm
  2. Depression. Medline Plus, a service of the National Library of Medicine National Institutes of Health. http://www.nlm.nih.gov/medlineplus/ency/article/003213.htm
  3. Bruera E, Yennurajalingam S. Challenge of managing cancer-related fatigue. J Clin Oncol 2010; 28:3671.
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