Sick building syndrome (SBS) is a collection of symptoms people can experience inside certain buildings, such as headaches, fatigue, or skin irritation. Scientists are unsure what causes it, but air quality, pollutants, and artificial lighting are potential factors.

Many people spend a significant portion of their lives indoors, so the quality of homes and other buildings is important for health and well-being.

However, SBS has become a common concern. Its symptoms can include headaches, fatigue, and throat, eye, or skin irritation.

This article explores SBS, its origins, potential causes, common symptoms, and strategies for prevention.

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SBS is the name for a group of varied and complex symptoms that people can experience when inside particular buildings.

The World Health Organization (WHO) coined the term in 1983 when it published a report on how buildings can affect health.

A growing amount of research on SBS has shown it is a common problem in indoor environments. However, there is often no identifiable cause, as a range of physical and mental factors may contribute to it.

SBS can cause a wide range of symptoms. However, one distinctive feature is that in SBS, symptoms worsen when a person spends time in a particular building and get better when they leave.

Some of the potential effects include:

These symptoms can vary in severity and may affect individuals differently.

Identifying a definitive cause of SBS is challenging. Some potential contributing factors include:

  • low indoor air quality
  • inadequate ventilation, which can lead to a buildup of indoor pollutants such as mold or dust
  • chemical contaminants from building materials, cleaning products, or furnishings
  • physical factors, such as noise, vibrations, electromagnetic fields, and ergonomics
  • high humidity levels or water damage that promotes mold growth
  • inadequate or inconsistent temperature control
  • insufficient natural light or exposure to artificial lighting
  • presence of insects and rodents and use of pesticides and raticides

Psychological factors, such as stress or dissatisfaction with the indoor environment, could also play a role.

There is no specific test for SBS for the building itself or the individuals experiencing symptoms. However, there are ways to assess an indoor environment for contributing factors.

The process may involve evaluating:

  • indoor air quality
  • ventilation
  • humidity levels
  • presence of molds or allergens

Some environmental consultants and building experts can conduct assessments to identify potential issues. At home, people may also be able to use indoor air quality monitors, thermostats, damp meters, and other devices to assess levels of air quality, temperature, and humidity.

The easiest way to treat SBS is often to avoid the building causing it. However, if this is not possible, then treatment may involve managing the symptoms and addressing the underlying cause.

For example, a doctor may recommend over-the-counter pain relieving or allergy medications to ease itchy eyes, nose, and skin. If someone has occupational asthma, they may prescribe inhalers.

However, this will not cure the root problem. To address them, an individual or their employer may need to identify what might be causing the symptoms and take steps to fix them. This could involve:

  • improving ventilation and air circulation within the building
  • identifying and remedying sources of indoor air pollution
  • ensuring proper cleaning and maintenance of heating, ventilation, and air conditioning (HVAC) systems
  • modifying the workspace or living environment to reduce exposure to irritants
  • providing education and awareness to building occupants about healthy indoor practices
  • maintaining an indoor temperature between 66.2–73.4°F (19–23°C) and a relative humidity rate of 40–60%
  • testing for possible indoor mold, fungus, or other contaminants

Preventing SBS involves input from all the people responsible for creating and maintaining buildings, starting with the following.

Building design

Preventing SBS begins with the design and construction of buildings. Property developers and architects need to consider the effect that layout, lighting, ventilation, and materials will have on the people inside.

Some people may be more susceptible to building-related health issues than others. These individuals are generally more vulnerable to pollution and include:

  • those who spend a lot of time at home
  • those with mobility difficulties
  • babies and children

As a result, ensuring buildings are healthy to live in is a health equity issue and one of general public safety.


People responsible for maintaining buildings must keep on top of tasks that affect the health of occupants. This could include:

  • installing ventilation bricks, fans, or other devices
  • regularly cleaning and maintaining HVAC systems
  • using furnishings and household maintenance products, such as paint, that are nontoxic and low in volatile organic compounds (VOCs)
  • addressing issues such as mold, leaks, or pest infestation

Daily routines

Building occupants can also contribute to how healthy an indoor environment is through daily practices, such as:

  • opening windows to encourage air circulation
  • opening blinds and curtains in the morning to allow natural light inside
  • removing dust regularly, ideally using a HEPA filter vacuum
  • using nontoxic, low VOC cleaning products
  • purchasing low VOC furniture, carpets, and home furnishings
  • ventilating rooms after doing things that pollute the air, such as cooking, home maintenance, or crafts
  • maintaining a comfortable temperature indoors
  • drying laundry outside, where possible
  • using an air cleaner or purifier

In workplaces, people can also take breaks to go outside and get fresher air.

Sick building syndrome (SBS) is a group of symptoms that occur when people spend time in certain buildings. The cause is uncertain, but factors such as low air quality, artificial light, mold and dust, and chemical exposure could all play a role.

SBS can cause a range of symptoms, but they will get better when a person spends time away from the building causing the problem. Avoiding the building is one way to treat it, but if that is not possible, identifying and addressing the underlying cause is the long-term solution.

Preventing SBS begins with the design and construction of buildings, maintenance, and following healthy practices while inside.