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Allergies Health Center

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Environmental Illness - Topic Overview

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:

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  • Those weekend headaches may be caused by a broken furnace leaking carbon monoxide.
  • Materials in new buildings may cause nausea and rashes. And the paper that makes up the outside layers of drywall promotes mold growth. Exposure to these molds may cause symptoms and could make you sick.

What causes environmental illnesses?

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 are known to cause lung cancer.
  • Exposure to asbestos, an insulating material found in some older buildings, can cause tumors, lung cancer, and other diseases.
  • Wood-burning stoves and poorly vented gas ranges can produce smoke or gases that can cause breathing problems.
  • Unsafe drinking 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 may cause sterility, mainly in men.
  • Lead poisoning can cause health problems in children. It can also cause high blood pressure, brain damage, and stomach and kidney problems in adults.

What are the symptoms?

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 are environmental illnesses 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.

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