What is Environmental Sensitivity?

Tricia Christensen
Tricia Christensen

Environmental sensitivity (ES) or sensitivities is a challenging condition that causes one or more systems in a person’s body to react to chemicals, substances, or other features usually present in the living or working environment. There is great argument about the origin of this condition and if it is an actual physical disease. Some doctors dismiss it as a psychological disorder only, and in some cases some psychological conditions are misdiagnosed as ES. However whether or not it is officially ordained a “disease” by various medical groups it can be the cause of much suffering to those who have it, and better treatment for it would certainly be a relief to many.

Environmental sensitivity can cause grogginess.
Environmental sensitivity can cause grogginess.

Usually, this condition emerges after an illness or an exposure to a certain substance that results in significant physical symptoms. These include allergy type reactions with runny nose, sneezing and itchy eyes or reactions of the respiratory system that result in asthma, bronchitis, or general cough. People may also feel faint, and develop nausea or diarrhea, or they might have frequent urination, stomach pain, a general feeling of “spaciness” or grogginess and pain in the head or in other parts of the body. Strong sense of smell is usually noted as commonality among those with environmental sensitivity, and the condition is confirmed or proven by watching a patient react again to the substance to which he or she claims sensitivity.

Sneezing can be a sympton of environmental sensitivity.
Sneezing can be a sympton of environmental sensitivity.

Some common features include that people will likely have been exposed to the substance in the past to which they are now sensitive. When exposed to the substance in the present, much lower levels of it are needed to produce a reaction. Improvement tends to be felt right away when exposure to a substance ends.

The symptoms of environmental sensitivity may pose significant problems for an individual or number of triggering chemicals or substances may be few and easy to avoid. Some people will note significant physical symptoms when they smell fragrances, for example, and they might need to avoid buying magazines with fragrant freebies, and work in an environment where people don’t use fragrance. This could be difficult to avoid completely, since many things have a pronounced scent. A person with ES to fragrances need to make rules about where they work so they can avoid this, but it’s awfully hard to continually avoid all fragrance smells when in the company of others.

A person could conversely have environmental sensitivity to a chemical that isn’t found too often, such as one in wet paint. He or she might have to be away from home if any exterior painting is being done close by or if a home’s interiors need to be painted. Typically, unless the person worked at a paint store or as a painter/contractor/etc, avoiding this chemical could be a little easier.

Many people develop multiple sensitivities to commonly available things, and they could have environmental sensitivity to cleaning products, various food products and even gases present in the air. Greater number of sensitivities and larger physical reaction to them corresponds to a much more limited lifestyle. When this is paired with skepticism by the medical community and by family or friends, the person with ES is greatly in need of support, and may not always get it. There are fortunately some good support groups online, and some people will also find local community support that can be useful.

Support alone isn’t adequate treatment. People with environmental sensitivity need first to find a doctor who believes in the condition and has some experience in treating it. There are diagnostic tools for differentiating ES from other conditions like psychological disorders and allergies, which can be useful. Some medical conditions like lupus, hypothyroidism, and others may also produce symptoms similar to ES. Emphasis in treatment is on identifying specific problem or trigger substances and creating methods for avoidance. The psychological effects of dramatically altered lifestyle when multiple ES is present should be addressed too.

Environmental toxins released into into the atmosphere may cause headaches in some people.
Environmental toxins released into into the atmosphere may cause headaches in some people.
Tricia Christensen
Tricia Christensen

Tricia has a Literature degree from Sonoma State University and has been a frequent wiseGEEK contributor for many years. She is especially passionate about reading and writing, although her other interests include medicine, art, film, history, politics, ethics, and religion. Tricia lives in Northern California and is currently working on her first novel.

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Discussion Comments


There is another theory about the rapid increase of allergies, asthma, environmental sensitivity and related ailments. Years ago, people spent a lot of time outside working, playing and generally interacting with the outside world. They don't do that so much anymore, so they are exposed to fewer allergens and substances that could set off reactions.

In other words, we tend to live in strictly controlled environments and that leads to heightened sensitivity to common elements to which we are not regularly exposed.

Is that a valid theory? That's up for some researchers to decide. Sounds like it has some merit, though.


This is a terribly tricky thing to treat and diagnose, it seems. But it is a very real problem for a lot of people.

For example, someone with ulcerative colitis may be particularly sensitive to aspartame (the artificial sweetner widely used in diet sodas). But there is little research to tie that sensitivity to the underlying illness that might give rise to a problem with aspartame.

What is the point? It could be that we are looking at an emerging diagnosis that could be rooted in real, physical conditions. More research will be needed on the subject, so let's hope that happens instead of the current trend of dismissing people who suffer from environmental sensitivity as having some kind of psychological ailment.

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