What is environmental illnesses?

Environmental illness

An environmental illness is a set of symptoms or a disease caused by chemicals, fumes, pollution, allergens, viruses, or toxins or physical hazards found in the environment. Exposure to toxic chemicals or other hazards may occur in the home, workplace, or community.

The symptoms of an environmental illness depend on what is causing it. The symptoms may be like those caused by other illnesses. Examples are headache, cough, fatigue, and nausea. And symptoms may vary according to the amount and type of exposure. Environmental illnesses may be difficult to diagnose. And they are sometimes mistaken for other illnesses.

Symptoms may occur suddenly and disappear when exposure to the substance ends. For example, headaches or grogginess caused by carbon monoxide at home can go away when the people who live there go to work or school. Sometimes symptoms may not develop for years, which can occur after exposure to cancer-causing chemicals.

The first treatment for an environmental illness includes getting rid of or reducing exposure to the things causing the illness. Additional treatment is based on the specific symptoms and part of the body that is affected.

What are the symptoms of an environmental illness?

Symptoms of an environmental illness depend on what is causing it. The symptoms may be like those you can get with other conditions. Examples are:

  • Headache.
  • Fever and chills.
  • Nausea.
  • A cough.
  • Muscle aches.
  • A rash.

If you think that exposure to toxic chemicals or other health hazards could be making you sick, talk to your doctor.

How is an environmental illness treated?

Early treatment includes stopping or reducing your exposure to what is making you sick. These things might help:

Improve your air quality by getting rid of the source of pollution.

Don't allow smoking in your house. If smokers live in or visit your home, ask them to smoke outside.

Increase the amount of fresh air coming into your home.

Adjust gas stoves, or replace them with electric ones. Check to make sure that exhaust fans work. Installing carbon monoxide alarms in your home can also protect you and your family.

Stop the health effects of mold exposure.

Keep a dry environment indoors to reduce exposure to mold. If you do find mold, it should be removed. If the moldy area is less than 3 ft (1 m) by 3 ft (1 m) , you can probably remove the mold yourself. But if the moldy area is bigger, a trained professional should remove the mold.

Further treatment will depend on your symptoms and what is causing your illness.

How is an environmental illness diagnosed?

An environmental illness can be hard to diagnose. You and your doctor may not know what is causing your symptoms. Or you may mistake your symptoms for another problem. Exposure to toxic chemicals can cause a wide range of common medical problems or make them worse.

An exposure history, which is a set of questions about your home, workplace, habits, jobs, lifestyle, and hobbies, can help you find out what is making you sick. It may point to chemicals or other hazards that you've been exposed to recently or in the past.

Keep a journal of your symptoms, and discuss it with your doctor. It may help you find patterns in your symptoms. This can help you and your doctor find out what is causing your illness.

Who can diagnose and treat environmental illness?

If you believe you have an environmental illness, first consider your symptoms. If your symptoms are severe (for example, you are having trouble breathing) call 911. If you have ingested household chemicals, call your Poison Control Center immediately. If you think you may have carbon monoxide poisoning, get outside quickly and call your doctor. Otherwise, contact:

  • A family medicine doctor.
  • A doctor who specializes in occupational medicine and environmental medicine.
  • A doctor who specializes in internal medicine or pediatrics.
  • A regional clinic that is part of the Association of Occupational and Environmental Clinics (AOEC).

You may find it helpful to create a written exposure history to take to your doctor, to help identify the cause of your illness.

What is an environmental illness?

An environmental illness can occur when you are exposed to toxins or substances in the environment that make you sick. These health hazards may be found where you live, work, or play.

Maybe you have headaches that only occur on weekends. Or maybe you began to feel sick and got a rash after moving into a newly built home. These symptoms can be caused by exposure to toxic chemicals. For example:

  • Those weekend headaches may be caused by a broken furnace leaking carbon monoxide.
  • Materials in new buildings may cause nausea and rashes.

What causes an environmental illness?

Exposure to some types of chemicals can cause an environmental illness. The more of the chemical you are exposed to, the more likely you are to get ill. Examples include:

Chemicals in cigarettes.

These chemicals are known to cause lung cancer.

Exposure to asbestos.

Asbestos is an insulating material found in some older buildings. It can cause tumors, lung cancer, and other diseases.

Wood-burning stoves and poorly vented gas ranges.

These can produce smoke or gases that can cause breathing problems.

Unsafe drinking water.

For example, water from a rural well polluted with pesticides or other poisons from a nearby industrial plant could cause allergies, cancer, or other problems.

Certain chemicals in the workplace.

Some may affect fertility.

Lead poisoning.

Lead can cause health problems, most commonly in children. It can also cause high blood pressure, brain damage, and stomach and kidney problems in adults.

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