It is important patients are given a correct diagnosis. Currently, so few people are trained to recognise and treat chemical sensitivity there is a real danger patients are misdiagnosed, usually as suffering from a psychiatric condition. General practitioners should be able to identify the possibility that individual patients may be affected, and to ensure they receive appropriate management.
A doctor or specialist skilled in the management of chemical sensitivity should be able to take a full medical and environmental exposure history (usually a lengthy procedure). They should be familiar with the various methods, which might be used to aid diagnosis using specialist laboratory testing. A biochemical tests of nutritional status may be required.
There are four main strands to the self-management of chemical sensitivity:
1. Reduction of exposure to chemicals
It is believed that reducing exposure to chemicals will help to lessen the chemical burden on the body. This also frees up the detoxification pathways to work more effectively.
However, some of the enzymes that detoxify chemicals are 'inducible' - that is to say, they are only produced in response to the chemical being present. Therefore, over-zealous avoidance of a chemical may lead to a reduction in the ability to detoxify that chemical. While it is important to create a 'safe-haven' at home, it is also important to maintain contact with the outside world for this reason, and for psychological benefit.
2. Reduction of exposure to other allergens
Chemically sensitive people seem to have an increased tendency to become affected by other allergens such as house dust mites, moulds and animals. It is therefore important to follow general allergen reduction advice (see the Avoiding Indoor Allergens fact sheet).
Good nutrition is vitally important in managing chemical sensitivity. A wide range of vitamins, minerals, essential fatty acids, and proteins are needed for detoxification pathways to work. Chemically sensitive people seem to have an increased tendency to develop food intolerances. The risk of this is increased if the diet is limited, as repeated eating of the same few foods makes it much more likely that sensitivity to those foods will follow.
The key to dietary management is to eat a wide-ranging, varied diet.
4. Specialist help
Increasing the level of certain vitamins, minerals, and amino acids will benefit many chemically sensitive people. However, there are risks in using high-dose supplements of some substances if they are not 'balanced' correctly. Therefore, this should not be done without specialist advice.
For some people, other special supplements, or high-dose intravenous vitamins and minerals may be beneficial. They can both boost detoxification pathways and be beneficial in 'chelating' (getting rid of) harmful chemicals. Some other supplements such as digestive enzymes or prescription drugs may also be helpful in some people.
For those who have already become chemically sensitive, avoidance is vital. The sufferer should ideally review all the substances that they have in their homes, and remove them. This will enable the detoxification pathways in the body to cope more effectively.
- Don't smoke or allow smoking in the house. If someone in your house just won't give up, ask them to only smoke outside or in only one room and get a good air filter in there
- Don't use any perfume or hairspray
- Switch to unperfumed deodorants; use sticks/roll-ons, not sprays
- Use fragrance free shampoo and conditioner
- Use a 'cleaner' toothpaste, i.e. homeopathic, herbal, baking soda
- Don't use ANY air fresheners, carpet powder cleaners, scented vacuum bags
- Use oxygen bleaches, not chlorine bleach
- Cut down on the use of strong smelling disinfectants. Most people use disinfectants when they only need to clean with soap and water. When a disinfectant is needed use one that does not leave a residue or smell
- Switch to an unperfumed soap powder of the 'sensitive skin' type or basic soap-flakes. Avoid all fabric conditioners
- Cut down on (or ideally stop) the use of furniture polishes and spray cleaners; use pump sprays or tins (beeswax) rather than aerosols, or just damp dust
- Half-used tins of paint, brush cleaner, cleaning materials etc. should not be kept under the sink. Move all of these items into the garage or bin
- When decorating use low-odour, solvent-free paints, varnishes and glues, and always ventilate well
- When buying new carpets and furnishings, there can be a big difference in manufacturers and brands so you will need to shop around to find one that doesn’t have a strong smell
- Try to avoid cheap 'chipboard' materials; MDF is better, solid wood is best. Allow anything new to air for a while before bringing it into use. If possible, ventilate rooms well until the smell goes
- Investigate purchasing an air filter for your car
- Avoid additives in foods as far as possible
- Consider fitting a water filter, or using a jug filter, but change the cartridge regularly, follow the instructions closely, and keep filtered water in the fridge
- Buy a recommended air filter for your home (one that reduces chemicals as well as particulates such as pollens and dusts).
- Remove everything within your home that is scented, this includes all perfumed soaps, powders, toiletries including toothpaste, air fresheners washing powders, fabric conditioners, sprays and synthetic cleaning materials
- Consider the glues, coloured pens, paints etc that your children are using. If necessary, replace them with non-chemical items, such as non-toxic crayons, paste, watercolour, and poster paints
- If you have children, do not use pesticides on the hair for lice even if it is prescribed - for details of an effective non-toxic method contact Allergy UK's helpline
- Use unperfumed toiletries and basic unscented vegetable soap. To replace toothpaste use bicarbonate of soda
- For washing clothes use very plain unfragranced washing powders. Allergy UK can provide names of companies able to supply suitable alternative products.
Sodium bicarbonate, perhaps one of the best friends of the chemically sensitive, is a very useful general cleaning tool. Cleaning tips are given in the 'Handy Hints' factsheet from Allergy UK.
There are numerous additives, chemicals, pesticides, and preservatives involved in the food chain. If possible, try changing to organic food as some people have reported benefit from this.
- Do not leave food in open tins even if refrigerated
- Switch to water sold in glass bottles not plastic
- Stop using plastics to store/wrap food and liquids. Use greaseproof paper, ceramic or glass containers
- Take a good vitamin and mineral supplement
- Exercise and saunas have been found to be beneficial to many people (please take medical advice first).
- Ventilation is extremely important Use the extractor fan if you have one
- If using a gas cooker, ensure that you have good ventilation and use an extractor hood, which vents to the outside. If you are thinking of changing your cooker, consider changing to electricity
- Central heating from a sealed gas boiler is usually tolerated but do ensure that it is in good order and regularly serviced. Fit a carbon monoxide monitor
- Steam cleaning carpets may help reduce lingering cleaning smells
- If ordering new armchairs or suites request that your chairs are not plastic wrapped for delivery
- Avoid all synthetic fabrics whether in furnishings or clothing and cottons with a synthetic finish
- Plants, such as the spider plant, can be a good source for removing formaldehyde
- If you react to newspaper print, leave them outside to air for several days before bringing them into the house
- When buying new clothes, wash them three or four times before wearing using bi-carbonate of soda instead of washing powder as this will help remove that ‘new clothes’ smell
- If you remove all the pollutants you may not need to invest in an air filter but if you do ensure that it is one with a charcoal filter.
- Always try to decorate during the summer when you can have the windows and doors open
- Do not sleep in the room that you are decorating until the smell has gone which might be several weeks
- Try to avoid using vinyl wallpapers
- Use low odour/no odour paint
- Add two teaspoonfuls of bicarbonate of soda to paint to reduce odour
- Use plain wallpaper pastes without fungicides. Or use a solvent free all-purpose adhesive
- Avoid using timber treatments and wall insulation.
Where you live can be very important. People with chemical sensitivity should if possible avoid -
- Living near an airport, on a main road or near a chemical plant or factory, because of the fumes that might be emitted
- The countryside also presents problems with crop spraying and the use of pesticides
- The ideal locations are on the west side of the country (where the prevailing winds from the Atlantic will not have picked up pollution), coastal areas (on-shore breezes tend to keep pollution further inland) and higher, windy areas
- Either very new or very old houses if possible. New houses are too well insulated, have too little ventilation and a high chemical load. Old houses have usually been treated with timber treatments and need remedial work. 'Middle aged' houses with chimneys and floorboards are usually best.
Unfortunately, chemical sensitivity is still not widely understood or in some cases even heard of by the majority of the public. This places people who are chemically sensitive at a severe disadvantage. Simple everyday tasks, which involve visiting public areas such as theatres, halls, schools, supermarkets, using public transport or travelling by air for some people, is impossible. Hopefully in the future progress will be made on this front and there will be ‘safe’ areas where chemically sensitive people can go. The greatest campaigners for this are the chemically sensitive themselves.
Last update: October 2012