Doctors and non-medical experts alike have debated over the details for decades, with some researchers even fighting over whether it’s an actual syndrome. No matter how it's defined, or whether it's believable to some or not, it's evident that chemical sensitivity makes modern life incredibly challenging. We have the details on what it is, what it does and what you can do about it.
People with chemical sensitivities report symptoms of skin and respiratory tract irritation, fatigue, dizziness, joint pain, fever, nausea and more in response to exposure to certain triggers. Chemicals emitted by carpets, plastics, perfumes, paints and cigarette smoke are common culprits nut even walking down the street exposes all of us to hundreds of chemicals on any given day, so potential triggers number in the thousands. Some doctors believe chemical sensitivity is psychosomatic, while others believe they’ve found diagnostic markers. Let's dig into the debate and get the details on this controversial, yet devastating, syndrome.
Multiple chemical sensitivity (MCS) causes sufferers to experience uncomfortable, often debilitating, symptoms in response to low-level chemical exposures. Symptoms can affect the central nervous system, respiratory tract or gastrointestinal tract, with the most common symptoms including skin and respiratory tract irritation, fatigue, dizziness, joint pain, fever and nausea.
People with MCS will often learn to avoid chemical triggers, much to the detriment of their professional and social lives. In fact, one study found 97% of sufferers had stopped using chemical cleaners, 89% saw friends less often and 77% had quit their job. MCS also tends to prompt diet changes, suggesting some chemicals in foods may affect sufferers as well.
Up to 90% of people with MCS are women between 30 and 50 years old, but other factors can also come into play:
Common triggers include chemicals emitted by carpets, plastics, perfumes, paints and cigarette smoke.
Researchers still haven’t reached a consensus over why some people react more severely than others when exposed to everyday compounds. Many doctors accept that MCS is a physical illness caused by extreme reactions to chemicals and other environmental triggers. Others believe the illness is more psychological in nature. This may be because anxiety, often associated with psychosomatic illness, is a huge risk factor for MCS. But anxiety and asthma also have an undeniable connection, one that might lend to understanding some of the mechanisms at play with MCS.
Even more important, though, some researchers believe they’ve found diagnostic markers. They advise doctors to perform a series of seven examinations on patients they suspect may have MCS:
Abnormal results in at least four of the above suggest an MCS diagnosis.
Researchers believe symptom management, not chemical elimination, should be the goal for treatment. Sufferers may be able to improve their quality of life using treatments to reduce symptoms, trigger desensitization and as a result may gradually increase daily activity. Treatment for anxiety may also help to reduce the mental and emotional impact of this condition.
We live in a world rife with chemicals, many of which we still overuse and underestimate. Some of them could even be slowly poisoning us. People with MCS could be canaries in the coal mines. But until we know more, if you’re sick and can’t figure out why it may help to consider talking to a doctor about the possibility that MCS could be to blame. Treatment options do exist — and an understanding doctor may be able to help.
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