The primary objective of this study was to investigate factors associated with fatigue severity in newly diagnosed patients with higher-risk myelodysplastic syndromes (MDS). The secondary objectives were to assess symptom prevalence and to examine the relationships between fatigue, quality of life (QoL) and overall symptom burden in these patients. The analyses were conducted in 280 higher-risk MDS patients. Pre-treatment patient-reported fatigue was evaluated with the Functional Assessment of Chronic Illness Therapy (FACIT)-Fatigue scale and QoL was assessed with the European Organization for Research and Treatment of Cancer Quality of Life Questionnaire-Core 30 (EORTC QLQ-C30). Female gender (P = 0·018), poor performance status (i.e., ECOG of 2-4) (P < 0·001) and lower levels of haemoglobin (Hb) (P = 0·026) were independently associated with higher fatigue severity. The three most prevalent symptoms were as follows: fatigue (92%), dyspnoea (63%) and pain (55%). Patients with higher levels of fatigue also had greater overall symptom burdens. The mean global QoL scores of patients with the highest versus those with the lowest levels of fatigue were 29·2 [standard deviation (SD), 18·3] and 69·0 (SD, 18·8), respectively and this difference was four times the magnitude of a clinically meaningful difference. Patient-reported fatigue severity revealed the effects of disease burden on overall QoL more accurately than did degree of anaemia. Special attention should be given to the female patients in the management of fatigue.