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Health > Mental Health >Lethargy


Lethargy is a common physical and psychological state. Usually it wears off quite quickly, but when it is persistent it can be a symptom of illness.

We all feel lethargic at some time; lethargic is what we are experiencing when we are lacking in energy, feel exhausted and without purpose. It is often a short-lived state, brought on perhaps by an over-large meal, but it can persists for a few days, several weeks or even for months.

Lethargic people appear lazy and it is sometimes difficult to distinguish laziness from lethargy, especially in an uncooperative teenage son or daughter.

A feeling of lethargy which persists for more than a week or two, and which does not have an obvious cause, may occasionally be due to a condition requiring treatment from a doctor. Lethargy is also a symptom of certain illness.


The changes in chemical balance experienced by women during the monthly cycle can cause mood change. The result can be lethargy, together with a tendency to be easily upset, irritability and sometimes an increase in weight with a swelling of the ankles and a bloated feeling. These are all common symptoms.

Lethargy is especially common in the early weeks of pregnancy, usually until about 14 weeks. The early days and weeks after the birth of a baby can also be very stressful, partly because of the demands of the baby and lack of sleep, but also because the hormonal balance of the mother’s body is adjusting after the birth. All this can cause extreme tiredness and may be part of post-natal depression.

Women quite frequently complain to their doctors of feeling tired all the time: they are often worried that they may be anemic. Anemia is certainly a cause of lethargy but much more commonly the tiredness is due to depression, which may be mild, moderate or severe. Other people who develop depression may also feel extreme lethargy, together with symptoms such as poor sleep and loss of appetite. It is curious that in depression people feel very tired but frequently have difficulty in getting off to sleep. They may wake very early in the morning, too, and be unable to get back to sleep. This leaves them feeling lethargic and unrefreshed in the morning but still unable to sleep well the following night.


Keep cool in hot, humid weather. Wear loose-fitting, cotton clothes and drink plenty of liquids.

Eat regular meals with fresh foods, whole-foods and only small amounts of starchy or sweet foods.

Avoid too little or too much sleep.

Stop at intervals if you are driving long distances. Get out of the car, take light refreshment and stretch your legs.

Avoid taking alcohol with other drugs or in excessive amounts.

Take regular exercise. This will tone up your body, improve your circulation and give you a sense of well-being. Exercises can be done at home or in a keep-fit class.


It is very common for people to feel exhausted after a viral illness such as influenza. This lethargic state may be accompanied by feelings of weakness and depression and can last up to several weeks after the illness. Glandular fever, an infection which often affects teenagers and young adults, is particularly debilitating in this respect.

Anyone with a raised temperature will feel lethargic and lethargy may also be the main symptom of other infections, such as tuberculosis, so having a medical check-up if you are feeling lethargic for any length of time is a good idea.

Many people experience lethargy on hot, humid summer days. Overheated places of work without air conditioning can cause extreme lethargy, especially when the tasks are repetitive and there is a background hum of machinery. These conditions can be extremely dangerous, since the speed of the worker’s reactions is reduced, particularly if he or she happens to be taking tranquilizing drugs.

Similarly conditions arise in a car on a warm day, especially when the speed is constant on a long, straight motorway. It is well known that drivers on motorways occasionally fall asleep at the wheel if they don’t break a long journey.

Lethargy is also felt by the elderly in cold surroundings when they develop hypothermia (abnormally low body temperature). It is particularly dangerous as the old person will move around less and less and so become colder and colder. Friends and relatives should therefore ensure that an old person is keeping warm and eating sensible.

A large number of drugs are well known to produce tiredness in the patient. Sleeping tablets are obviously taken to induce sleepiness but some continue their effect the following morning, rather like a hangover. Tranquilizers prescribed to reduce anxiety and help the patient relax frequently cause lethargy. Some tablets taken for high blood pressure also have the same effect. However your doctor should be informed if any prescribed drug is having this effect on you.


Lethargy in a child means that he or she is probably sickening for something–probably a cold or measles, for instance. It is a good idea to take the child to a doctor as soon as possible.

Drowsiness and lethargy often occur after a head injury. A child will drop off to sleep after a nasty bang on the head, when he (or she) is exhausted with crying. The child should be allowed to sleep so long as he ahs not been knocked out at the time of injury, but you should make sure he can be roused from sleep if you are worried. If someone has lost consciousness as a result of a head injury, he should be taken to hospital.


Usually lethargy is a temporary condition. When it persists for some time and seems to have no obvious cause, it is wise to see a doctor.

Where lethargy is caused by the menstrual cycle, some women find that taking the contraceptive Pill eases the symptoms. Depression nowadays can be treated with tablets and it helps, too, if the sufferer can receive understanding and sympathy from the family.

Where lethargy follows from an illness, recovery can be speeded by encouraging the patient to rest, to eat a nourishing diet and to take some fresh air.

Lethargy brought on by the environment, whether it be an over-heated workplace or a stuffy car, can be helped by a number of measures. Plenty of short breaks preferable outside, refreshments and refraining from alcohol, especially when other drugs are being taken, will all ease the situation.

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