Do strong odors make you feel sick? Chemical smells from things like perfume, cleaning products, bleach, air fresheners, gasoline, and smoke can cause severe reactions in a lot of people. Especially for those of us who have Fibromyalgia and Chronic Fatigue Syndrome. Over 60% of us who have those conditions also have Multiple Chemical Sensitivity (MCS).
What Is Multiple Chemical Sensitivity?
Multiple Chemical Sensitivity Syndrome is a disorder that appears to be triggered by low-level exposure to multiple chemicals that are found in the environment -in the air we breathe, the water we drink, the food we eat and the products we use.
The National Institute of Environmental Health Sciences defines MCS as a “chronic, recurring disease caused by a person’s inability to tolerate an environmental chemical or class of foreign chemicals.”
The chemically sensitive person can react to tiny amounts of a chemical that do not bother other people. Most often chemicals trigger symptoms with their smells. Some trigger symptoms upon physical contact, while others must be ingested.
Problem chemicals often include:
- Fragrances in air fresheners, cleaning products, perfumes, candles, and hygiene products
- Smoke from cigarettes, burning wood or leaves
- Fumes from paint, gasoline or industrial products
- Chemicals in food, tap water and medications
There are a number of other names for MCS including environmental illness, idiopathic environmental illness, 20th century disease, total allergy syndrome and chemical AIDS. Multiple Chemical Sensitivity affects millions of people, but has been pretty much rejected as a legitimate illness.
MCS is not considered to be a distinct disorder by the American Medical Association (AMA), the American Academy of Allergy, Asthma and Immunology (AAAAI), or the Centers for Disease Control (CDC). Despite this, MCS is recognized by the Americans with Disabilities Act, Social Security Administration, U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development as well as other state and national government agencies.
Symptoms Of MCS
There are no specific set of symptoms that clearly distinguish MCS from other conditions such as fibromyalgia and chronic fatigue syndrome. Because these conditions often overlap, some researchers believe they are all part of a family of illnesses called central sensitivity syndromes, or CSS.
The symptoms of Multiple Chemical Sensitivity affect all systems in the body including the respiratory, musculoskeletal, gastrointestinal, immune and central nervous systems and the skin. Symptoms can vary from person to person and range from mild to disabling.
Most sufferers of MCS complain of several of the following symptoms:
- burning, stinging eyes
- wheezing, breathlessness
- extreme fatigue
- headache, migraine, vertigo, dizziness, nausea
- poor memory and concentration
- runny or stuffy nose
- sore throat, cough
- sinus problems
- skin rashes and/or itching skin
- sensitivity to light and/or noise
- sleeping problems
- digestive upset
- muscle and/or joint pain
MCS is reported as being a problem for between 11 to 16 percent of the American population. Over 60 percent of those with Fibromyalgia, Chronic Fatigue Syndrome, and Gulf War Syndrome are sensitive to chemicals. Three to five percent are disabled by chemical sensitivities.
People who have pre-existing asthma and allergies also have an increased risk of developing multiple chemical sensitivity. Some experts believe 40 percent of the population may be affected, although they may not realize their symptoms are related to chemical exposure.
Multiple Chemical Sensitivity Diagnostic Criteria
Multiple Chemical Sensitivity Syndrome was first described in the 1950’s and was given a medical description in 1989. Six criteria for the diagnosis of MCS were identified which include:
- The symptoms are reproducible with repeated chemical exposure
- The condition is chronic.
- Symptoms recur in response to lower levels of chemicals than previously tolerated.
- Symptoms appear in response to multiple chemically unrelated substances.
- Symptoms improve or resolve when chemical irritants are removed.
- Multiple organ systems are affected.
There are no reliable tests to help diagnose MCS at this time. Like fibromyalgia, MCS is a diagnosis of exclusion.
Multiple Chemical Sensitivity Treatment
Finding a doctor who recognizes MCS is a challenge. Many experts and major medical organizations believe that multiple chemical sensitivity should not be considered a recognized clinical syndrome. They have stated that the connection between the patient’s symptoms and environmental exposures are speculative and evidence of disease is lacking. Therefore, treatment is also lacking. People often have to find solutions on their own.
Some of those solutions include:
- Avoid exposure – Avoiding chemical exposure is the most effective treatment for MCS. Because there are so many chemicals in our environment, it may be hard to know which ones bother you. One strategy is to try to reduce your exposure to as many chemicals that you don’t need to be exposed to as possible.
- Purify your environment – It is important to keep your environment as free of chemicals and other irritants as possible. You can use air purifiers and minimize materials and objects in your home that can trap odors and dust. Install water filters in your home. Switch to non-toxic, fragrance-free personal products, household cleaners, and laundry products.
- Clean up your diet – Proper nutrition and healthy eating habits are crucial. Eat organic products when possible. Avoid processed foods, food additives, sugar and artificial sweeteners. Also, any nutritional supplements and vitamins you take should be high-quality and hypoallergenic. Some experts recommend a rotation diet to help identify foods which could be causing you problems.
- Detoxify – Decrease toxic overload with foods, vitamins, and supplements that strengthen your body’s natural detoxification mechanisms. Sweating also eliminates toxins from the body, so any activity that makes you sweat will help. Sauna therapy can be used to increase sweat production and release toxins from the body.
Due to the uncertainty surrounding MCS, it is often up to individual sufferers to determine what brings them the most relief from symptoms. You can find tips for living with environmental illness at MCS-America.org
The Reality Of Chemical Sensitivity
It may be impossible to avoid all chemicals. An estimated 100,000 different chemicals are being used throughout the world. Each year around 1,500 more chemicals are being added to the environment. These dangerous chemicals are in the air we breathe, the water we drink, the food we eat and the products we use. The notion that toxic chemicals in the environment are making us sick, is not well accepted. Yet, here we are.
Environmental Illness, Multiple Chemical Sensitivity, or whatever name you want to use, is REAL! I Know, I live with it. It seems to be getting worse and I often feel isolated because of it. It is much easier to control chemical exposure at home. Out of the house, there is no control over what you might come into contact with. I have been seriously thinking about wearing a face mask when I go anywhere. Do they make any cute ones?