MCS - what is it
The body is daily exposed to substances which have the ability to damage or even kill it. From an evolutionary point of view, these substances have traditionally included viruses, bacteria, yeasts and fungi, poisonous foods and other such nasties. The body reacts against these substances via the immune system. The immune system learns to recognise the substances and react against them with inflammation, which effectively kills or denatures that substance.
The problem is that in recent years man has developed a new range of toxic substances, such as pesticides and solvents. These chemicals are equally toxic to the body and the body recognises this. To cause damage the chemical either has to be particularly toxic, or present in a high concentration and this switches on the immune mechanism for identifying and reacting against chemicals.
Actually this makes perfect good sense! Everybody knows that once you have had measles you are protected against future attacks because the immune system has learned to recognise the measles virus and attacks it vigorously before the numbers can build up and cause an infection. Exactly the same principle (but possibly a different mechanism) applies with chemical sensitivity. Once the body has been damaged by an overwhelming dose or a toxic dose of a chemical, the body learns to recognise very tiny amounts of this chemical and reacts against it accordingly. This is probably the first step in developing chemical sensitivity. However, chemicals are often related and the next step which happens is that the body then starts to react against other related chemicals. This is called the spreading phenomenon and results in multiple chemical sensitivity, whereby one reacts to lots of different chemicals.
The body has more than one line of defence. The immune system is just one, but we are intelligent beings and just as one might choose to avoid spending time with somebody who has got influenza, one also chooses to avoid inadvertent exposure to chemicals. The presence of these chemicals can often be sensed by smell and the body quickly learns that smelling a substance will subsequently result in severe symptoms. Indeed this quickly becomes a conditioned response (just like Pavlov”s dogs), whereby just the smell of a chemical will induce the symptoms.
So multiple chemical sensitivity is an acquired sensitivity to chemicals (which may be noxious initially, but often innocuous subsequently), which is triggered by a tiny exposure to a chemical, which may result in a multiplicity of symptoms, which may take hours or even days to clear.
There are many degrees of multiple chemical sensitivity. In a random telephone survey of United States citizens, it was shown that 7.8% of the population said that they were intolerant of certain chemicals and avoided them. Many people will tell you that perfume makes them sneeze, petrol fumes cause nausea, alcohol makes them feel spaced out and dizzy, paint fumes may cause headache. These are the minor and easily avoidable chemical incitants. However, for some people their sensitivity is so severe that they are unable to tolerate even the slightest exposure to chemicals, as a result of which they have to live in carefully controlled clean environments. The slightest exposure to chemicals causes severe symptoms and they are simply unable to go into an uncontrolled environment. These people are made prisoners in their own home, being unable to go out into cars, travel into any public place, or meet other people who may be wearing the very cosmetics, perfumes and fabrics which make them ill.
For tests for MCS - see lymphocyte sensitivity tests
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