Sick Building Syndrome: What It Is, Causes, Symptoms, Diagnosis & Treatment

officeAdobe Stock
Medically Reviewed By:
Mark Arredondo, M.D.

Sick building syndrome (SBS) can make you feel unwell while in a particular building but better when you leave.

SBS affects many workplaces, with a high rate in offices, university labs and administrative buildings, making it an environmental health concern. But recent research on the issue is scant, and existing studies could use some updating.

This article will explore what SBS is, its causes, symptoms to watch for, how doctors diagnose it, and the available treatments.

What is sick building syndrome?

Sick building syndrome is a term for situations in which people in a building experience health issues that seem to be linked to time spent there, though no specific illness or cause can be pinpointed, according to the National Health Service (NHS) in the United Kingdom. Complaints can be localized in one area or spread throughout the entire building.

In contrast, the term "building-related illness" is used when diagnosable illnesses are directly tied to airborne contaminants in the building. The World Health Organization (WHO) reported in 1984 that up to 30% of new and renovated buildings worldwide might face excessive indoor air quality complaints.

Often, these issues are temporary. But they persist in poorly maintained or designed buildings. Indoor air problems can also arise from occupants' activities.

Sick building syndrome causes

Inadequate ventilation is a significant contributor to SBS as it compromises indoor air quality, according to the County of Los Angeles Public Health Department. The risk of airborne illnesses, such as the flu, increases when there's insufficient outdoor air supply. Moreover, various factors can affect office air quality:

  • Occupant activities: Actions of people inside the building, like smoking, can introduce harmful substances. Environmental tobacco smoke contains toxic air contaminants.

  • Cleaning agents: Use of cleaning products can release volatile organic compounds (VOCs) such as toluene and benzene, which affect air quality.

  • Furnishings: Building materials and furnishings can emit pollutants. Carpeting and manufactured wood products can release formaldehyde.

  • Office equipment: Electronics like computers and photocopiers can produce pollutants like ozone, further affecting indoor air quality.

Sick building syndrome symptoms

Individuals affected by SBS typically experience a range of nonspecific symptoms, according to an article by Dr. Edward Horvath, director of occupational health in the department of general internal medicine at the Cleveland Clinic in Ohio. Symptoms often fall into five major categories:

  • Central nervous system and psychiatric symptoms: These may include fatigue, memory problems or difficulty concentrating.

  • Irritation of the eyes, nose and throat: Symptoms can show up as dryness, stinging, hoarseness and skin irritation, which may appear as redness or dryness.

  • Neurotoxic symptoms: People may experience fatigue, lethargy, reduced memory or difficulty concentrating.

  • Headache and dizziness: Frequent headaches and bouts of dizziness can be indicative of SBS.

  • Nausea, odor or taste complaints: Unpleasant smells or tastes, as well as changes in sensitivity, can be among the symptoms.

Individuals also may report nonspecific reactions such as chest discomfort, asthma-like symptoms and more, making SBS a complex condition with varied manifestations.

How is sick building syndrome diagnosed?

Diagnosing SBS can be challenging, because its symptoms are specific to a particular space and often resemble those of other health issues. Health care providers use a process of elimination to determine if SBS is the cause.

They'll inquire about your lifestyle, work, home environment and symptom frequency. Appropriate tests, like allergy assessments, may be conducted to rule out other conditions.

Once SBS is identified as the likely culprit, after excluding other possibilities, treatment can begin. This thorough evaluation helps ensure accurate diagnosis and appropriate care.

Sick building syndrome treatments

The NHS suggests several steps to alleviate SBS symptoms:

  • Improve ventilation: When possible, open windows to enhance airflow.

  • Maintain a stable temperature: Set the thermostat at around 66 degrees Fahrenheit and avoid frequent daily adjustments.

  • Stress reduction: Find ways to reduce stress, which can worsen SBS symptoms.

  • Screen breaks: If you use a computer regularly, take regular breaks to rest your eyes and reduce screen-related discomfort.

  • Fresh air breaks: Step outside for fresh air during lunch and other breaks to refresh your senses and improve well-being.

This said, SBS doesn't have a specific cure. The primary approach is to avoid or eliminate the root causes, which can alleviate symptoms. However, when that's not possible, treatments are focused on symptom management and may involve:

  • Pain relief: Medications to manage aches and pains.

  • Anxiety and sleep: Short-term medications to address anxiety and improve sleep.

  • Nausea control: Anti-nausea medications to mitigate feelings of nausea. These treatments aim to enhance comfort and well-being for individuals experiencing SBS symptoms.

Living with sick building syndrome

Workers often worry about the long-term effects of being in a building with SBS. However, there's no definitive evidence linking SBS to chronic medical conditions.

Typically, SBS symptoms should improve soon after leaving the problematic building. If steps are taken to improve the indoor environment or if you no longer occupy that space, the outlook for SBS symptoms is positive. In some severe cases, working from a home office part- or full-time may be necessary to reduce prolonged exposure.

Addressing air quality and building issues with the manager or landlord can also help eliminate symptoms for affected employees.


National Health Service (NHS): Sick Building Syndrome

County of Los Angeles Public Health Department: Sick Building Syndrome in Los Angeles

Cleveland Clinic: Building-Related Illness and Sick Building Syndrome: From the Specific to the Vague

U.S. Consumer Product Safety Commission: The Inside Story: A Guide to Indoor Air Quality

What This Means For You

Improving ventilation, maintaining a stable temperature and getting fresh air are ways to alleviate symptoms of sick building syndrome.

Related Stories

No stories found.