Our world is a toxic place. Every day, we are accosted by fragrances, fumes, chemicals, and pollutants. The result is that the number of people living with MCS is growing.

What is MCS?

MCS stands for Multiple Chemical Sensitivity, a syndrome wherein low-level chemical exposure produces a wide range of physiological and/or psychological symptoms in the affected individual. 

Alternate names for MCS include:

  • Environmental Illness
  • Sick Building Syndrome

Clinicians and researchers often refer to MCS as Idiopathic Environmental Intolerance, and doctors treating MCS may call themselves Clinical Ecologists.

The Realities of MCS

Multiple Chemical Sensitivity affects an increasing number of people every year. 

MCS interferes with routine life functions both at home and at work.

MCS negatively affects the quality of life for thousands of sufferers and their families.  

Yet MCS is not even recognized as an illness among the professional medical community.

Living with MCS

The goal of this website is to offer validation to those living with MCS and provide resources, strategies, and support for coping with the condition.

The Living with MCS Blog will dive into issues affecting MCS sufferers at home and at work, offering ideas to help maintain optimum health and the best possible quality of life in the face of dealing with MCS.

The Resources page will provide links to helpful websites, the latest research, online articles, and books related to MCS.

We invite you to Share Your Story – your struggles and successes in coping with MCS – so that we can all learn from each other.

We also hope the information provided on this website will help those who don’t have MCS better understand those who do.

Living with MCS Medical Disclaimer

What Causes MCS?

As the name indicates, individuals with MCS are more sensitive to environmental toxins than the general population. This means common items most people can tolerate, such as fragrances, cosmetics, and cleaning products, make a person with MCS sick.

As yet, there is limited research into the root cause of why some individuals are more sensitive to environmental toxins than others. It may not be something we ever fully understand. However, there are two generally-accepted theories as to why someone develops MCS:

  1. Low-level exposure to a chemical toxin (or toxins) over many years
  2. A single incident of high-level exposure to a chemical toxin (or toxins)

Low-Level Exposure

Extended low-level chemical exposure is most commonly associated with the work environment. Chemical factories, dry-cleaning establishments, and automotive garages, for example, all subject workers to daily contact with toxic chemicals and fumes even when all ventilation and safety codes are followed. The cumulative effect of this exposure over many years can lead to a variety of health issues, including MCS.

High-Level Exposure

Single incidents of high-level exposure can take a variety of forms, some of them commonplace, others catastrophic. Chemical sensitivity can develop from a single afternoon spent in biology class where formaldehyde is being used for dissections. It can also arise from a single incident of extreme smoke or vehicle exhaust inhalation as may occur during a building fire or car accident.   

In either case, it is theorized, MCS develops because the immune system becomes overburdened by the toxic load. The result is a lifelong hypersensitivity to even small amounts of “everyday use” chemicals. 

Once MCS develops, the amount of chemical exposure necessary to cause a reaction may be so small the sufferer isn’t even aware there’s an issue until it’s too late. This is just one of many factors that make living with MCS both challenging and frustrating.

Common Chemicals and MCS

Most people, when they hear the phrase “toxic chemicals,” don’t immediately think of laundry detergent, shampoo, or air fresheners. We consider such products safe for everyday use. For the most part – and for most people – they are.

For an individual with MCS, however, it’s a different story. 

woman with head in hands reflecting despair of living with mcs

Any of the following common products can trigger immediate and lasting adverse reactions in people with Multiple Chemical Sensitivity:

  • Laundry Soap
  • Fabric Softener
  • Deodorant
  • Perfume
  • Sunscreen
  • Nail Polish
  • Scented Candles
  • Air Fresheners
  • Disinfectants
  • Insecticides
  • Household Cleaners

Other common but potentially problematic toxicants include:

  • Vehicle Exhaust
  • Tobacco Smoke
  • Chlorine
  • Off-Gassing (fumes given off by manufactured items like carpeting, furniture, plastics, etc.)
  • Air Pollution

Finally, any chemical formulations used for the following purposes can create problems for someone with MCS:

  • Fragrances
  • Preservatives
  • Antibacterial Agents
  • Lubricants
  • Thickeners

The sad fact is, our daily lives have become highly chemicalized we’re barely aware of it anymore. We are constantly bombarded by fragrances and toxins in homes, offices, stores, and even public transportation vehicles. All of which makes it nearly impossible for a person with MCS to live a normal life.

Symptoms of MCS

Individuals with Multiple Chemical Sensitivity cope with a broad spectrum of symptoms. Symptoms vary between individual MCS sufferers, of course, but they can also vary within one individual.

The most common symptoms of MCS include:

  • Headaches
  • Fatigue
  • Brain Fog
  • Memory Issues
  • Mood Swings
  • Muscle Aches and/or Stiffness
  • Heart Palpitations
  • Sinus Congestion
  • Sneezing
  • Sore Throat
  • Shortness of Breath
  • Itchiness
  • Rashes
  • Bloating
  • Intestinal Gas
  • Diarrhea

Unfortunately, nearly every individual with MCS will experience more than one of these symptoms at a time in reaction to chemical exposure.

Severity of MCS Symptoms

The severity of MCS symptoms also covers a broad spectrum. The level of reaction, as with the development of symptoms themselves, varies greatly between different MCS sufferers as well as within each individual. 

Variables that affect the severity of MCS symptoms include:

  • General health status
  • Severity of chemical sensitivity
  • Type of chemical exposure
  • Length and breadth of chemical exposure
  • Speed and efficacy of symptom-alleviating treatments

For most, it will take ever-changing trial and error to find the most effective ways to minimize the severity of MCS symptoms when they occur.

Coping with MCS

Given the long list of everyday chemicals that can affect an individual with MCS, the wide range of possible symptoms, and the varying severity of those symptoms, it’s no surprise that treating MCS is a huge challenge.

Indeed, it seems the most consistent thing about MCS is its inconsistency. 

What’s more, the professional medical community, as noted, does not yet recognize MCS as an illness. An open-minded, sympathetic doctor may accept the connection between chemical exposure and symptoms and provide assistance accordingly.

Too many medical professionals, however, believe the problems are “all in the patient’s head.” If they prescribe anything, it’s often a psychiatric evaluation.

Finally, since there’s no understanding of the root cause of MCS, there’s no known cure for the condition. 

The truth is, there is no treating MCS. There is only coping with MCS. 

And coping with MCS comes down to two things:

  1. Chemical Avoidance
  2. Symptom Management

Avoiding Chemical Exposure

Steering clear of chemical exposure is not always easy, especially at work and in public places. There are a number of steps one can take, however, to limit the risk of encountering problematic substances both at home and while out in public.

At Home

Anyone coping with MCS should strive to make their home a safe, chemical-free haven. This can be done by:

  • Purchasing only fragrance-free soaps, cosmetics, and detergents
  • Replacing chemical cleaners with natural alternatives
  • Avoiding items that off-gas toxic vapors (e.g. new carpeting, plastics, paints, adhesives, etc.)
  • Maintaining adequate ventilation
  • Using air purifiers

It’s important to communicate with family members so everyone understands the reasons for taking such measures and the importance of maintaining them.

The added bonus, of course, is that reducing household toxins benefits everyone living in the home.

In Public

The greatest challenge for individuals with MCS is navigating the public world where there’s limited control over the toxins one encounters. Still, there are a number of ways to minimize exposure:

  • Use a mask
  • Wear protective clothing (long sleeves, gloves)
  • Run errands during non-peak hours
  • Shop at open-air markets if available

In the workplace, communicate with management about ways to limit fragrances and other chemicals around the office. Request a well-ventilated and/or isolated workstation, and make use of a personal air purifier if possible.

Just as at home, a less-toxic work environment benefits everyone, not just someone with MCS.

Managing MCS Symptoms

Despite their best efforts, individuals with Multiple Chemical Sensitivity are unlikely to avoid all toxins all the time. It’s important, therefore, to be prepared for symptoms to develop and to act quickly when they do to minimize their severity.

To cope with MCS symptoms:

  • Get away from the area that’s triggering the symptoms
  • Move to fresh air and take a few slow, deep breaths to help clear the respiratory system
  • Drink plenty of water to flush out toxins
  • Eat nutritionally-dense foods
  • Allow time for extra sleep
  • Use over-the-counter (OTC) medications as tolerated for rashes, headaches, diarrhea, etc.

To help manage MCS symptoms long-term, consider keeping a health journal. This will allow you to uncover triggers, spot trends in your symptoms, and keep track of the recovery tactics that work best.

The Future of MCS

Researchers are beginning to show an interest in Multiple Chemical Sensitivity. We hope, before long, this will help explain the underlying biological causes of MCS.

And with that understanding, we hope the professional medical community will then recognize MCS for the real and problematic physical condition it is.

Until then, however, it falls to those of us coping with MCS to educate ourselves, support each other, and seek ways to make this toxic world a little easier to navigate.