Updated 18 May 2017

Are you allergic to your Wi-Fi?

Nausea, headaches, fatigue – these are some of the symptoms allegedly experienced by people with a sensitivity to Wi-Fi. But is this a legitimate allergy?

When a French court awarded a French woman a disability grant for allegedly suffering from an allergy to electromagnetic radiation from gadgets, it has opened a can of worms around the world. Is there such a thing as an allergy to Wi-Fi, and how dangerous is it?

According to the experts, including the World Health Organisation (WHO), there is very little to be concerned about.

The French woman in question, Marine Richard, however claimed she suffered so badly she was forced to relocate to a remote mountain area to live in a barn to escape the unpleasant effect of gadgets such as cell phones, the BBC reports.

She is not alone in this fear, real or not. Many people report health woes such as headaches, fatigue, heart palpitations and nausea when they are near electronic gadgets.

What the experts say

As far back as 2004, the World Health Organisation held a groundbreaking workshop on Electromagnetic Hypersensitivity (EMS) to discuss sensitivity to Electromagnetic Fields (EMF).

This workshop laid the foundation for many studies, which the WHO has included in their conclusion that “EHS individuals cannot detect EMF exposure any more accurately than non-EHS individuals”. They referred to a number of studies which revealed that symptoms reported were in fact not “related to EMF exposure”.

Many experts in fact propose that the symptoms people report being caused by EMS could rather be from environmental factors such as flickering fluorescent lights, screen glare and even inadequate indoor air quality.

According to the WHO, EMS encompasses some nervous system symptoms such as headaches, fatigue, stress, sleep disturbances, skin symptoms (prickling, burning sensations and rashes), muscle pain. However, these symptoms are all relatively non-specific and vary from person-to-person, meaning they could be attributed to something else.

Although the experts do all agree that with the booming technological revolution there has been, and continues to be an extraordinary increase in EMF sources, the majority of them all agree that EHS is not a defined medical condition.

It was at this meeting which the term "Idiopathic Environmental Intolerance (IEI) with attribution to EMF" was proposed with the intention of replacing EHS.

This term, which is more widely accepted by medical professionals, defines the so-called "Wi-Fi- Allergy" as:

- An acquired disorder with numerous periodic symptoms
- A disorder which is associated with diverse environmental factors which the majority of society tolerates
- A condition which is yet unexplained by any known medical, psychiatric or psychological disorder

The ‘nocebo effect’

Some research has even shown that many of the symptoms people with apparent EMS report can actually be attributed to pre-existing psychiatric conditions, and in some cases may even be induced by the stress of worrying about EMF exposure.

A study conducted by Johannes Gutenberg-Universität Mainz in Germany that documented EMS concluded that “electromagnetic hypersensitivity might actually be the result of a so-called nocebo effect". Dr Michael Witthöft (Johannes Gutenberg University Mainz), who was part of the study explained that this means that the anticipation of pain or injury may actually lead to it happening.

In the case of EMS, the constant conflicting reports in the media about the dangers of EMFs may in fact be behind the apparent rise in EMS. “Tests have shown that the people affected are unable to tell if they have really been exposed to an electromagnetic field [with their] symptoms being triggered in exactly the same way if they are exposed to genuine and sham fields,” he said.

However, while the debate continues to rage as to whether EMS is in fact a condition to be concerned about, the good news is that physicists may have found a major new way to confine electromagnetic energy without it leaking, which many are hailing as the start to a radiationless future.

In the meantime, if you are worried about your exposure, try to limit your screen time, sleep in a space free of electrical devices and spend more time outdoors and unplugged. 

Read more:

Is your Wi-Fi murdering your plants?

No known health impact from cell phones

Does Wi-Fi nuke your sperm?

Image: WiFi from iStock


Ask the Expert

Allergy expert

Dr Morris is the Principal Allergist at the Cape Town and Johannesburg Allergy Clinics with postgraduate diplomas in Allergology, Dermatology, Paediatrics and Family Medicine dealing with both adult and childhood allergies.

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