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Multiple Chemical Sensitivity (MCS): Understanding a Silent Disease

Updated on June 20, 2012
This can create fear in those who suffer from Multiple Chemical Sensitivity.
This can create fear in those who suffer from Multiple Chemical Sensitivity.

Imagine this scene. You are out to dinner with some of your friends when someone walks by you, smelling heavily of perfume. You instantly begin to get sick. A migraine headache comes on, you begin to sweat profusely, your throat closes up and your breathing becomes labored. In some very extreme instances, you might even begin to have convulsions.

This is what people who live with Multiple Chemical Sensitivity Syndrome (MCS) have to put up with. What are chemical smells that you and I might live with every day, maybe even enjoy, become life or death hazards for those suffering from MCS.

Chances are you might have never heard of MCS before. Let me put it this way: If you have never heard of this disease, you don't have it, neither does anyone you know. I say that not in a mean way, but because the disease can be such a danger for those suffering from it, that one of the first things you learn about someone who suffers from MCS is that they have this condition.

If you have never experienced a seizure, be thankful.
If you have never experienced a seizure, be thankful.


Symptoms can vary from person to person, but usually include headaches, extreme fatigue, muscle and joint pain, eczema, rashes, flulike symptoms, asthma, sinus problems, anxiety, depression, memory problems, trouble concentrating, insomnia, irregular heartbeat, bloating, nausea, vomiting, intestinal problems, and seizures.

That list can sound a bit exaggerated, but I know quite a few people who have MCS and I have seen quite the array of symptoms. They aren't faked either. I have watched one of my friends suffer from seizures anytime she unwittingly gets a whiff of a strong fragrance.

How Widespread is it?

In the United States, it is estimated that about 15 to 17 percent of the population, amongst varying backgrounds, has an extreme sensitivity to chemical smells. However, the number of actually diagnosed conditions drops to only about 5 percent. Many people who suffer from MCS say that they didn't always have the condition. Rather, it was a growing exposure to pesticides and solvents that eventually caused them to develop the illness.

One big problem with MCS is that the exact nature of the illness is unknown. Some Doctors say that the effects are physical, while others say they are entirely psychological. I know of one older lady who suffers from MCS, however she has told me that her doctor says that when she smells a particular odor, it recalls a memory from her traumatic past and that's what causes her seizures.

It's not too far-fetched to say that most of us don't like to tolerate high amounts of chemical fragrances. I personally enjoy the smell of a floor that has recently been cleaned with a product like Mr. Clean, but if you get a big whiff of it, it starts to give you a headache. I know from experience that heavy cologne can also make you start to feel sick. But I wouldn't say that qualifies me to have MCS. I just think that chemical smells can have an adverse affect on anyone.

Mental Side Affects

While not just the physical condition of someone deteriorates, their mental condition can worsen as well. Because those who suffer from MCS often have to live a slightly more recluse life, they can easily suffer from depression. Can you imagine how terrible it would be to be locked up on a bright summer day because the air pollution makes you sick? You can't go shopping at a mall because you never know what chemicals someone might be wearing.

However, this is also an area where Doctors can't agree. Some believe that MCS attributes to mental issues, while others feel that a decrease in mental health brings on MCS type symptoms. Whatever the case may be, those suffering from MCS experience symptoms that are very real to them.

What can we do?

The reason I have become interested in this disease is because I am in charge of buying cleaning supplies for a public building. A building that is used by about 12 people who suffer from MCS. So my job grew a little more difficult when I was informed that I had to find an alternative to traditional cleaning products.

I was able to track down some organic cleaning solution. The stuff is amazing. It is proven to clean and disinfect, so you don't lose any of the cleaning power. For a public facility, disinfect is an absolute must. However, the stuff is all natural, they claim you could even drink it if you so desired. I shudder to think what is out there in nature that has that kind of power, but you get the idea.

If you have friends who suffer from MCS, chances are they have alerted you that they have this condition, and advised you how you can help them. Even something as simple as limiting strong fragrances when you will be in their company can help them. However, it is very difficult to eliminate all fragrances from our lives. Even shampoo can trigger symptoms in a sufferer, and I don't recommend not washing your hair just for that reason.

But remember, those who suffer from MCS are still humans. They still need love and affection, and it becomes increasingly harder for them the more their health deteriorates. If you know someone suffering from MCS, don't withdraw all association just because it can be slightly challenging to be around them. Just take a few precautionary steps and you might find that you can still enjoy their friendship.


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    • Judy G Gillis profile image

      Judy G Gillis 

      6 years ago from Charlottetown, PEI, Canada

      Actually the diagnosis was the best part. Not knowing, being suspected of just being obnoxious, THAT was the hardest. Once the diagnosis came, it was easier. People realized that maybe I really did have a physical problem, that it wasn't "just in my head."

      As for entering harm's way, I've taken to wearing layers out in public (even an accent scarf) - my work is air conditioned so layering is perfect - so I can at least give myself a buffer of putting a sleeve or a lapel against my mouth and nose - it gives me enough time to "get out." :)

    • flagostomos profile imageAUTHOR


      6 years ago from Washington, United States

      Thanks for the read! Sorry to hear about the diagnosis. I have met too many friendly people that have to lead private lives because they literally put their lives in danger going into public places where they could be exposed to chemicals. I hope the same doesn't happen to you.

    • Judy G Gillis profile image

      Judy G Gillis 

      6 years ago from Charlottetown, PEI, Canada

      I have been diagnosed with MCS, and so has a friend of mine at the same workplace. One thing is sure: it's real. Whether entirely physical, entirely psychological, or a combination of the two, this is a debilitating condition. I found your hub because I just wrote a post on MCS and there was a contextual link at the bottom of my hub to yours. The man who diagnosed me talked about precipitating events accelerating the development of the illness (also known as Environmental Illness) and of psychological factors heightening the symptoms in my case, especially in situations where I don't "feel safe." Whether that's true or not, I know well the difficult choice to withdraw from something I might otherwise enjoy doing just because I know that there are others at a social function who will be sporting their latest scent. The newer fragrances (such as vanilla and coconut, which younger people tend to wear, and in abundance!) are worst for me, as are "deodorizing" sprays - a term which really annoys me because they don't "remove" or "eliminate" odors; they "leave a fresh scent" - which is another way to say that they leave a chemically-based, long-lasting fragrance that is toxic to me and to others like me.

      Kudos for finding a cleaning product that works for your building. Our family uses the Down East brand for cleaning products. This line of cleaners has been around for close to 30 years, and has been used commercially for nearly as long.

      A common misconception is that MCS sufferers are "allergic." The effects of MCS may include allergy-like symptoms, but most of the symptoms are neurological, which means that antihistamines and decongestants do not work and may even hinder because they clear the nasal passages, allowing more scent to enter the body. :(

      Good hub!

    • flagostomos profile imageAUTHOR


      6 years ago from Washington, United States

      I had a hard time understanding this disease at first because I met one lady who had MCS, and suddenly everyone else decided they had it as well. But I've seen too many people respond very negatively to MCS to believe it to be anything but a very real disease.

    • Eric Calderwood profile image

      Eric Calderwood 

      6 years ago from USA

      The more we use chemicals, the more chance they have of producing detrimental effects. I don't have MCS, but I do respond negatively to strong chemical odors. Just from what I've experienced and from what I've read here, I can't imagine that all these symptoms are purely psychosomatic. Chemicals are not good for us, plain and simple. I try to use less of them and find more natural alternatives when I can.


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