How to Identify Symptoms and Triggers of Chemical Sensitivities

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Multiple chemical sensitivity. Toxicant-induced loss of tolerance. Sick building syndrome. No matter what you call them, sensitivities to chemicals have major repercussions for those who are affected by them. Depending on the severity of the sensitivity, sufferers may find themselves totally unable to live and work in traditional environments — even environments that never bothered them before.

Multiple chemical sensitivity, or MCS, is a little different than your run-of-the-mill allergy, though. Although the exact cause remains a mystery, just like MCS itself, some experts hypothesize that a major exposure to certain harsh chemicals set the wheels in motion. Read on to learn more about MCS and other chemical sensitivities — and learn what to do about them.

What Causes It?

As previously mentioned, multiple chemical sensitivity is somewhat an enigma. In fact, some health and medical experts aren’t even convinced that it exists. They attribute the symptoms that self-diagnosed sufferers experience to other maladies or even tricks of the mind. But MD and University of Texas researcher Claudia Miller is not only sold on its existence, she’s theorized about the event (or events) that triggers it.

She says multiple chemical sensitivity begins with a man-made toxicant — such as a strong pesticide or another “poison.” A single high-dose exposure to the toxicant or multiple encounters with it causes a person to suddenly fall ill. Typically, the immune system would fight off the sickness. But with MCS — or toxicant-induced loss of tolerance (TILT), as Miller calls it — the body fails to do its job. The person gets sicker and sicker and eventually is sensitive to chemicals found in common substances like lotion.

Signs and Symptoms

If you’ve suffered an exposure to a potentially harmful chemical and have noticed a change in the way you feel in the weeks or months since, take note. You could be experiencing some type of everyday allergies, or the reason behind the sudden change could be more serious. The effect of that exposure may be lingering in the form of MCS. Although it’s difficult to diagnose, especially since not all physicians recognize it, MCS and other extreme chemical sensitivities usually create similar symptoms.

Symptoms Can Be Immediate, Or Appear Over The Next Few Days

You may notice that you start to get that achy feeling, almost like you have the flu. That quick onset of the “flu” probably comes with other symptoms like a headache and nausea. Perhaps you start to experience pain in your chest, your muscles suddenly stiffen or you notice difficulty breathing. You develop a rash or feel unusual fatigue. Any symptom that you might associate with an allergic reaction could possibly be a sign of MCS, particularly if it persists for an inordinate amount of time.

Modes of Treatment

It can be difficult to find a doctor who will diagnose MCS in the first place, let alone treat it. That’s why many people self-diagnose when they can’t find any other feasible cause for their symptoms. Some self-treat, too, by simply removing themselves from any environment that could contain a trigger substance. This is harder than it sounds, though, because that means avoiding any traditional office space, apartment, or restaurant —so you’re essentially removing yourself from society.

Doctors Use Drugs To Treat MCS

When physicians do opt to treat MCS, they often aim to improve quality of life in general instead of treating the specific disease. Doctors turn to medications such as Prozac, Paxil and other antidepressants to help the afflicted cope with the realities surrounding their chemical sensitivities. Sometimes they’ll enlist an anti-anxiety medication, as well, to help combat the fear that people feel about potentially running into a new chemical irritant. These approaches are hardly a cure, or even close to it.

Treating The Symptoms, Not The Cause

Other physicians focus on treating the symptoms of MCS — again, ignoring the root cause because, quite simply, no one quite seems to know what it is. They may prescribe medication to offset headaches or help with muscle pain and stiffness, which could help to assuage the more bothersome symptoms of multiple chemical sensitivity. However, it doesn’t actually strike at the core of the disease. So how, then, can you successfully treat a condition like this?

Green Cleaning Solutions


The answer to the aforementioned question is so simple that you might be surprised: the best way to treat chemical sensitivities is to avoid them in the first place. One of the major triggers of MCS and the everyday allergy is cleaning products. Whether they’re being used in a commercial capacity or right in your own home, most cleaners are loaded with chemicals that can cause negative reactions.

Do Your New Laundry Products Make You Itch, Sneeze or Get A Headache?

Have you ever switched to a new type of laundry detergent and realized a general itchiness all over? Or have you ever sprayed a new fabric freshener and been unable to fight off the onslaught of sneezes that follow? These symptoms could very well be due to chemical sensitivities or, in some cases, even allergies. You don’t have to experience the dramatic signs of MCS in order to suffer from everyday sensitivities, and sometimes these can be just as disheartening.

Eco Friendly Cleaning Products Are Much Healthier To Your Body

Using green products to clean can help to keep you and your coworkers or family healthy. Eco-friendly cleaning products are as old as the concept of cleaning. The first soap was developed around 2800 B.C., made entirely of plant-based ingredients. But as time moved on, man turned to synthetic chemicals in the name of saving money. Get back to basics and use plant-based, store-bought products at home or make your own from natural ingredients such as vinegar and lemon juice. The internet holds a wealth of ideas.

Now that you have a better understanding of multiple chemical sensitivity, and chemical sensitivities in general, it’s easy to see why eco-friendly cleaning products are such a big deal. They’re not only easier on the environment — which is your safe haven from man-made chemicals — but also easier on your own immune and neurological systems. If you stick to green products when you clean, you may be saving your family from developing chemical sensitivities that could lead to major issues.



Emily Folks is a sustainability journalist and the editor of Conservation Folks.




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