by Sharon Wachsler
In this 2009 article, Sharon Wachsler discusses the relationship between ME/CFS and MCS. The More resources section has been updated in 2015.
What's the connection between CFIDS and MCS?
There is a great overlap between the Chronic Fatigue and Immune Dysfunction Syndrome/Myalgic Encephalopathy (CFIDS/ME) and Multiple Chemical Sensitivty (MCS). Although it is possible to have MCS without having CFIDS/ME, most people that I know with MCS have also been diagnosed with CFIDS/ME. Likewise, studies of people with CFIDS indicate that from one-quarter to three-quarters meet the diagnosis for MCS. .
A significant difference between CFIDS/ME and MCS is that whereas alleviation of CFIDS/ME symptoms is often difficult or impossible, alleviation of MCS symptoms—in the form of avoidance of chemical exposures—almost always provides some relief. People with MCS who remove allergens and chemical triggers usually experience a great reduction of their symptoms and may even slow or stop the progress of the disease. Many people who start out with mild MCS become more severely ill as they are exposed to more and more chemicals. An individual with CFIDS/ME who suspects s/he may also have MCS and takes steps to remove and avoid triggers, may help prevent future debilitation.
What are the signs and symptoms of MCS?
The symptoms of MCS are remarkably similar to those of CFIDS/ME. They include rashes and skin irritation; burning, watering, dry or itchy eyes; earaches or ringing in the ears; sore throat; headaches; runny nose or congestion; muscle pain and/or weakness; pain and tingling in the extremities (hands and feet); gastro-intestinal problems (stomach ache, gas, diarrhea); nausea, dizziness; fatigue; brain "fog"; lack of coordination; difficulty concentrating; anxiety or mood swings; vomiting; fainting; seizures; and many other symptoms.
Because of the great range of MCS symptoms and their similarity to CFIDS/ME symptoms, other indicators are usually necessary to suggest MCS.
Here are some additional indicators that might suggest a PWC has MCS:
Note: Because a person with CFIDS fits more than one of these categories, it does not mean that s/he necessarily has MCS—many of these can be true for people who just have CFIDS—but it may suggest that a PWC would want to at least have MCS ruled out.
Doesn't a person always know if s/he has MCS?
Sometimes yes, and sometimes no. In fact, I recently spoke with a woman who did not have any fatigue, but who was experiencing many CFIDS-like symptoms (including headaches, nausea, dizziness, sore throat, and pain and numbness in her extremities). She and her doctor were baffled.
After speaking with her, I suggested that she might have MCS and that she consult a clinical ecologist and the Massachusetts Association for the Chemically Injured. The reason that it is not always obvious that one has MCS is that if a person is reacting to everything around him/her, s/he feels sick all time and might not make the connection to specific exposures. Also, because some reactions to an exposure can be delayed—by hours or even days—it can be difficult to pinpoint the trigger.
Additionally, because MCS is not a well-known or respected diagnosis among the medical community (1), most people do not know what MCS is or what to look for. Finally, the issue of denial can play a role. For instance, long before I realized that I had MCS, I had hints that I was bothered by chemicals (such as perfume). I chose to ignore these signs because the idea of MCS—with its additional burdens—was too fearful for me to face.
(1) MCS is even less accepted than CFIDS/ME. Most doctors treat MCS as a hoax or a psychiatric disorder. Even allergists, who may be helpful in identifying some allergens and triggers, are usually not knowledgeable of or interested (in fact may be hostile to the concept of) MCS.
What can I do if I suspect I have chemical sensitivities?
(2) Many people with MCS react to natural gas. If one suspects MCS, s/he might want to have the gas stove and/or furnace shut off for a few days to see if her/his symptoms change.
American Academy of Environmental Medicine
Phone: (316) 684-5500
https://www.aaemonline.org/ A physician's organization—you can search for members who practice environmental medicine in your area.
Chemical Injury Information Network
http://www.ciin.org/ Provides information and referral to members; publishes a monthly newsletter. Maintains a library on chemical injury.
Human Ecology Action League, Inc.
PO Box 49126
Atlanta, GA 30359
http://ehnca.org/heal-human-ecology-action-league-inc/ Information clearinghouse with chapters and support groups around the country.
Massachusetts Association for the Chemically Injured (MACI)
PO Box 754
Andover, MA 01810-0745
Fax (978) 686 0745
http://www.maci-mcs.org/ Information, referral and support for people with MCS. Also holds monthly meetings and publishes a newsletter.
Multiple Chemical Sensitivities Referrals and Resources—an organization with a wealth of resources for patients and health care providers.
National Center for Environmental Health Strategies
http://www.ncehs.org/ Focuses on initiating change and empowering the public with hard data, such as medical, legal, and policy information. Provides information on gaining accommodations at work and school.