What is "Multiple Chemical Sensitivities"?

Karyn Maier
Karyn Maier

Multiple Chemical Sensitivities (MCS) is the term given to explain an elevated and chronic allergic response to chemicals. However, a person diagnosed as having multiple chemical sensitivities is not necessarily considered to be suffering from a clinical illness. In fact, some clinicians insist that multiple chemical sensitivity is merely a label describing certain symptoms and not a "real" disease. For that matter, having multiple chemical sensitivities is classified as being idiopathic, meaning its origin of cause is unknown.

Using a sauna may help those with multiple chemical sensitivities.
Using a sauna may help those with multiple chemical sensitivities.

Multiple chemical sensitivity is also known as environmental illness, 20th century disease, sick building syndrome, and even chemical AIDS. While the medical community struggles to define this condition, theories behind its mechanism abound. Some researchers believe it’s the result of an impaired immune system. Others feel it may be due to an enzyme deficiency. Still others suspect psychological factors may be involved.

Perfumes or colognes can cause a reaction in some people with multiple chemical sensitivities.
Perfumes or colognes can cause a reaction in some people with multiple chemical sensitivities.

What is known about multiple chemical sensitivities is that symptoms are very real. Studies have shown that subjects may experience an allergic response to organic environmental chemicals 100 to 1,000 times greater than non-allergic persons. The range of symptoms also varies between individuals. However, multiple chemical sensitivities commonly produce a sore throat, runny nose, stinging eyes, cough, shortness of breath, and a burning sensation of the eyes.

People with multiple chemical sensitivities may have a reaction when pumping gasoline.
People with multiple chemical sensitivities may have a reaction when pumping gasoline.

There is a standard set of criteria used to help make a diagnosis of having multiple chemical sensitivities. First, the allergic reaction must be consistent and occur each time the same allergen is introduced. Likewise, symptoms should improve in the absence of the allergen. In addition, there must be sensitivity to multiple agents.

People with multiple chemical sensitivities may commonly experience a runny nose.
People with multiple chemical sensitivities may commonly experience a runny nose.

Adequate management of multiple chemical sensitivities is as poorly understood as the origin of the condition. To make matters worse, possessing multiple chemical sensitivities often aggravates other conditions, such as asthma, food allergies, seasonal allergies, and even depression. However, the best course of preventative measure may be to practice avoidance of potential triggers. The most common food allergens associated with this condition are tartrazine (yellow #5) and caffeine. In terms of environmental allergens, the list is lengthy and includes: 1) Pesticides, herbicides, and fertilizers 2) Fragrances, such as perfume 3) Cleaning products, including bleach and laundry detergent 4) Gasoline 5) Volatile organic compounds generated from glue, paint, varnish and solvents

Pesticides and herbicides can trigger an allergic response.
Pesticides and herbicides can trigger an allergic response.

Approximately 85 to 90 percent of those who exhibit symptoms of multiple chemical sensitivities are women. It is also interesting to note that about half also suffer from depression and anxiety. For this reason, the condition is often treated with selective serotonin reuptake inhibitor (SSRI) antidepressants.

Other treatment options include nutritional therapy. This may be an important consideration since many people with multiple chemical sensitivities tend to eliminate entire food groups from their diet. Another non-invasive and drug-free approach is periodic detoxification through dietary support and the use of a simple sauna. However, most patients with multiple chemical sensitivities report that lifestyle changes are the most effective means of managing symptoms. Such changes include the elimination of all chemical substances from the home and workplace in favor of natural products.

Some individuals may be sensitive to chemicals like bleach.
Some individuals may be sensitive to chemicals like bleach.
Karyn Maier
Karyn Maier

Contributing articles to wiseGEEK is just one of Karyn’s many professional endeavors. She is also a magazine writer and columnist, mainly for health-related publications, as well as the author of four books. Karyn lives in New York’s Catskill Mountain region and specializes in topics about green living and botanical medicine.

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