The etiology of the Chronic Fatigue Syndrome (CFS) is unknown but it is usually considered to be postinfectious or postviral. Many infecting agents have been suspected as causative but none has been proven. We investigated precipitating factors in 134 CFS patients through the use of a questionnaire, interview, clinical examination and serology for infecting agents; 35 healthy controls completed a similar questionnaire. CFS started with an apparently infectious illness in 96 (72%) but a definite infection was only found in seven of these 96 (7%). Thirty-eight (28%) had no apparent infectious onset: 15/38 (40%) had noninfectious precipitants (trauma, allergy, surgery). There was no apparent precipitating event in 23/38 (61%). Immunization was not a significant precipitant. Stressful events were very common in the year preceding the onset of CFS (114/134, 85%) but these occurred in only 2/35 (6%) of the controls (p < .0001). The onset of CFS may be associated with preceding stressful events and multiple other precipitants. An infectious illness is not uniformly present at the onset and no single infectious agent has been found; CFS is most likely multifactorial in origin.