What is sick building syndrome?

Sick building syndrome (SBS) is a name for a condition that’s thought to be caused by being in a building or other type of enclosed space. It’s attributed to poor indoor air quality. However, the precise cause is unknown. According to the Consumer Product Safety Commission, poor indoor air quality can be found in about 30 percent of new and remodeled buildings.

Sometimes diagnosing SBS can be difficult because of the wide range of symptoms. These can also mimic other conditions, such as the common cold. The key to SBS is that your symptoms improve after leaving the building in question, only to come back when you return to the same location. If you notice recurring symptoms that seem to appear whenever you’re in a particular building, you may consider investigating sick building syndrome as the cause.

SBS symptoms can affect your skin, respiratory, and neurological systems. You may mistakenly self-diagnose yourself with a cold or flu.

Among the possible symptoms are:

  • throat irritation
  • breathing difficulties
  • tightness in the chest
  • runny nose
  • allergy-like symptoms, such as sneezing
  • burning sensations in the nose
  • dry, itchy skin rashes
  • headaches
  • dizziness
  • difficulty concentrating
  • forgetfulness
  • fatigue
  • irritability
  • nausea
  • body aches
  • fever
  • chills

If you have allergies or a current respiratory illness, you may notice an increased severity in your symptoms. For example, people with asthma might be at a higher risk for asthma attacks due to SBS.

It’s also important to note that SBS affects everyone differently. While everyone who spends time in a particular space might go through some of the above symptoms, these can vary. Some people may not experience any symptoms at all. Others may experience symptoms after leaving the building in question — this may be due to repeated or long-term exposure.

The term “sick building syndrome” is used when the exact cause of your symptoms can’t be identified. However, there are a variety of possible causes you can ask your doctor about.

The culprits behind SBS may include:

  • buildings with poor ventilation, such as schools, offices, and public spaces
  • high levels of dust
  • tobacco smoke
  • rooms with poor lighting
  • outdated computer displays that cause eye strain
  • the presence of mold or fungus
  • formaldehyde (mostly found in wood furniture and floors)
  • asbestos
  • chemicals in the air from cleaning products
  • pesticides
  • carbon monoxide
  • ozone from the use of printers and fax machines
  • high levels of stress at school or work
  • low workplace morale
  • heat or low humidity
  • noisy work environments
  • insect or animal droppings

Given the variety of factors that can cause SBS, it’s difficult to pinpoint one single cause. You might be able to work with your employer to eliminate possible risk factors. This way, you can get to the source of the problem.

Diagnosing SBS involves a process of elimination. Your doctor will rule out other conditions that could mimic sick building symptoms, such as a cold, asthma, or allergies. They will also ask you about your work and home environment.

You may consider keeping a journal to record your symptoms. Write down when and where they start, as well as when they go away. Also, be as specific about your symptoms as you can.

SBS is primarily treated by alleviating symptoms while reducing your exposure to the causes of these symptoms.

Allergy medications can help alleviate itchy eyes, nose, and skin. Over-the-counter options, such as Benadryl and Zyrtec, are widely available. Asthma medications may be needed for wheezing and other breathing difficulties. These may include long-term medications, such as leukotriene modifiers or an inhaler for acute symptoms.

Some steps to treat SBS can also be taken by employers. You or your boss may consider the following:

  • Use cleaning products with low fumes and no fragrances.
  • Vacuum regularly to remove dust.
  • Change out air filters every couple of months (or more, if necessary).
  • Find the right humidity — NHS Choices recommends an optimal humidity level of 40 to 70 percent.
  • Get a test for possible indoor mold or fungus.
  • Update computer monitors and other display systems.
  • Change lights as needed.
  • Consider investing in LED or blue lights for less energy output.

The symptoms of sick building syndrome most often get better once you leave the hazardous building in question. Persistent symptoms improve once you’ve either eliminated your exposure, or when hazards inside the building are removed. In some cases, long-term exposure to poor indoor air quality can lead to lung diseases, such as asthma.

Unfortunately, you may not be able to tell if an indoor space has poor air quality factors that can make you feel sick. Still, you may be able to take preventive measures to reduce your risk of SBS.

You can help decrease your own risk factors for sick building syndrome by:

  • taking regular breaks outside of the building by eating lunch outdoors, for example
  • opening your windows to get some fresh air, if possible (you may want to avoid this during high levels of outdoor pollen, though)
  • giving your eyes a break by looking away from your computer
  • standing at your desk or walking around your office
  • using caution with any indoor chemicals, such as bleach and insecticides