Chemical sensitivity refers to an abnormal bodily response to chemicals in the environment.
A sensitivity to chemicals has become an increasing problem in recent years as exposure to chemicals has increased generally, and for this reason it is often referred to as ‘The 21st century disease’.
Chemicals can enter the body via a variety of routes:
- Ingested – e.g. in food, in water, as additives, via the hands or as drugs
- Inhaled – e.g. house dust mite, mould, pets, pollen
- Absorbed via the skin
Once the chemical is in the body it has to be broken down (detoxified) and removed.
Chemical sensitivity can often develop in people who are prone to other types of sensitivity or allergy e.g. asthma, eczema and hay fever but this is not always the case.
The triggers for chemical sensitivity span a vast array of chemicals including:
- Household cleaners
- Air fresheners and room sprays
- Traffic fumes
- Plastics (for example Polystyrene, Polypropylene, PVC, Polyethylene)
- Air pollution
- Food additives
- Mercury in dental fillings
- New carpet
- Chlorine in swimming pools
Those suffering with chemical sensitivity will often experience many different symptoms affecting different parts of the body although symptoms will vary from one person to another. People who experience chemical sensitivity may become very fatigued and have trouble with their coordination and concentration for long periods of time. Other symptoms include headaches, skin rashes (urticaria, eczema, hives) irritable bowel, nausea, dizziness, burning sensations and muscle pains.
Diagnosis is hard since there are very few doctors trained to recognise chemical sensitivity and no reliable tests to help with a diagnosis. Doctors may prescribe an antidepressant to alleviate symptoms such as anxiety and sleep issues. If you think you may be suffering from chemical sensitivity it is important to speak with your medical professional. A doctor will generally base the diagnosis on the description of symptoms, following a complete medical history and physical examination.
For most sufferers the avoidance of the pollutant/toxicant triggers is the only way to reduce the symptoms of chemical sensitivity. Taking extra precautions when handling chemicals is also advisable – for example the wearing of gloves or a mask to help avoid direct contact. In addition, good nutrition has been shown to help since a wide range of vitamins, minerals, essential fatty acids and proteins needed for detoxification pathways to work efficiently.
Information contained in this Articles page has been written by talkhealth based on available medical evidence. Our evidence-based articles are certified by the Information Standard and our sources are available on request. The content is not, though, written by medical professionals and should never be considered a substitute for medical advice. You should always seek medical advice before changing your treatment routine. talkhealth does not endorse any specific products, brands, or treatments.
Information written by the talkhealth team
Last revised: 26 May 2016
Next review: 26 May 2018