4 signs multiple chemical sensitivity is behind your strange symptoms

For as long as I can remember, strong chemical smells have given me headaches. You know the smells I’m talking about — paint, varnish, cleaning supplies… even nail polish and fragrances.

A lot of people aren’t bothered by these smells, and they think I’m exaggerating when I say they get to me. But the fact is, I’m far from alone.

A recent study from the University of Melbourne found that one in four American adults deal with uncomfortable symptoms when exposed to everyday chemicals. That means more than 55 million Americans have multiple chemical sensitivity (MCS), a condition where chemicals in your environment make you feel ill.

In fact, in the last ten years, the number of people with some form of chemical sensitivity has grown by 200 percent. And the number of people diagnosed with multiple chemical sensitivity has grown by 300 percent.

The symptoms that people with multiple chemical sensitivity experience vary quite a bit. Some people get headaches. Some feel dizzy. Some have trouble breathing. Some have eye or sinus problems. Others have heart problems.

The severity of the condition varies a lot too. For some people (like me), chemical sensitivity is inconvenient and annoying. You smell something chemical-y, so you try to avoid it. If you can’t, you get a headache, but you can still carry on with your day.

But for 76 percent of people who have MCS, these sensitivities become disabling. They have to quit their job or struggle to find a comfortable place to live because of their sensitivities.

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How to know if you have MCS

If you’ve noticed that you have reactions to chemical smells, you may be wondering whether you have MCS too. And considering the statistics I mentioned above, there’s a good chance you might.

But since the symptoms and triggers of MCS vary so much, it’s often hard to tell. There are, however, four MCS criteria you can keep your eyes peeled for:

#1- You have ongoing reactions to everyday chemicals. When you have MCS, you don’t react to a chemical once and then never have a problem again. It’s an ongoing issue that happens regularly. So if you got a headache after painting your kitchen one time, but every other time you painted you were fine, it’s probably not MCS.

#2- You react to more than one chemical or trigger.  Multiple chemical sensitivity is characterized by sensitivities to multiple chemicals… hence the name. If you only react to one specific chemical, you may have an allergy.

#3- Your symptoms and triggers are consistent. If you have MCS, you’ll notice that certain chemicals (i.e. triggers) give you certain symptoms pretty much every time you come into contact with them. So varnish always makes you dizzy. Or cleaning supplies always give you a headache. Or oil fumes always make you nauseous.

#4- Your symptoms disappear when your triggers do. If you have MCS, your symptoms should strike when you’re exposed to a chemical and fade away the longer you’re away from that chemical. If your symptoms linger far beyond your exposure, you may have a different health issue on your hands.

What causes MCS?

If you don’t deal with chemical sensitivities, you might find it odd that minor everyday smells you don’t think twice about make other people sick. And it’s still a mystery why this is the case.

Some scientists think it stems from excessive past exposure to chemicals. Take Gulf War veterans as an example…

Many of them developed multiple chemical sensitivity after going to war and being exposed to pesticides, diesel fuel, smoke from oil fires and anti-nerve gas pills.

That’s why some people call multiple chemical sensitivity a different name — toxicant-induced loss of tolerance (TILT). This name stems from the theory that exposure to toxic substances (toxicants) gradually wears away your body’s tolerance to these substances. So eventually, you can’t tolerate them at all — even at small doses.

But whatever the cause, there’s something that’s important to remember about chemical sensitivity…

At high enough doses, these chemicals would make everyone feel sick. Some people are just more sensitive, and feel the effects sooner.

“People with MCS are like human canaries. They react earlier and more severely to chemical pollutants, even at low levels,” said the University of Melbourne study’s lead researcher Anne Steinemann.

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Coping with MCS

If you deal with chemical sensitivities, you know that the best way to feel good is to avoid your triggers. But that’s not always possible, so you should also try to lighten your toxic load to make your body’s response to chemicals less severe. You can start by:

  • Eating a whole food, organic diet that includes plenty of vegetables, fruit, high-quality protein and whole grains.
  • Identifying food sensitives and eliminating those foods from your diet. This will help reduce inflammation and lighten your body’s load. Common food sensitivities include gluten, dairy, corn, egg and soy.
  • Exercising daily. Exercise is a simple, free and effective detoxifier, so take advantage of it.
  • Try supplements that can aid your body’s detoxification and elimination process. Probiotics, for example, can help heal your gut and improve your digestion, which is one of the primary ways your body gets rid of toxins. Coenzyme Q10 can also reduce inflammation and support your kidneys, one of your body’s other important detoxifiers. Antioxidants like vitamin C, N-acetylcysteine, α-linolenic acid, carotenoids and flavonoids are also helpful for people looking to heal from MCS.

If you have a moderate to severe case of multiple chemical sensitivity — one that interferes with your ability to work and live the way you want to, don’t try to fix it on your own. Consider seeing a natural health practitioner who specializes in chemical sensitivity issues. They can prescribe a diet and supplement protocol tailored to your specific situation. There are plenty of these doctors out there, and surely there’s one who can help you live a healthy, normal life free from chemical sensitivities.

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  1. One in four Americans suffer when exposed to common chemicals — MedicalXpress. Retrieved March 14, 2018.
  2. Steinemann. “National Prevalence and Effects of Multiple Chemical Sensitivities.” — Journal of Occupational and Environmental Medicine, 2018.
  3. What is Multiple Chemical Sensitvity? — MultipleChemicalSensitivity.org. Retrieved March 14, 2018.
  4. Bell, Iris and Carol M. Baldwin. “Chapter 94 – Multiple Chemical Sensitivity.” — Women and Health (Second Edition). 2013, p. 1379–1394.
  5. Extreme Chemical Sensitivity Makes Sufferers Allergic to LifeDiscover. Retrieved March 14, 2018.
  6. Treating Multiple Chemical SensitivitiesNaturopathic Doctor News & Review. Retrieved March 14, 2018.
Jenny Smiechowski

By Jenny Smiechowski

Jenny Smiechowski is a Chicago-based freelance writer who specializes in health, nutrition and the environment. Her work has appeared in online and print publications like Chicagoland Gardening magazine, Organic Lifestyle Magazine, BetterLife Magazine, TheFix.com, Hybridcars.com and Seedstock.com.