Don’t be too quick to blame coughing, sneezing, headache, stuffy nose and red, itchy eyes on a cold: Mold exposure can cause some of the same symptoms.
“If you have unexpected health issues, you need to consider your environment,” says family physician Janette Hope, MD, past president of the American Academy of Environmental Medicine.
While mold could cause allergy-type symptoms, concerns about “toxic mold” might be overblown.
There are an estimated 300,000 kinds of mold. Stachybotrys chartarum, also called black mold, is among the most common indoor molds. Other common species include microbes in the aspergillus, penicillium, cladosporium and alternaria families, according to the Centers for Disease Control. All molds can cause reactions.
Research published in Environmental Health Perspectives found links between indoor dampness and mold, present in up to 50% of buildings, to allergic reactions and respiratory symptoms. The World Health Organization has noted that chronic exposure could induce or exacerbate asthma.
Melissa Halliday Gittinger, DO, assistant professor at Emory University and member of the American College of Medical Toxicology, compares mold to other allergy triggers like pollen and dust: Some people react severely and others don’t react at all.
Workers exposed to significant amounts of mold might have more severe reactions. Those with compromised immune systems are also at greater risk of developing complications such as pneumonia. For the most part, Gittinger says, “Household molds tend to not produce toxins in sufficient quantities to cause serious reactions and, for most of us, the immune system easily deals with [mold spores].”
Mold thrives in warm, damp conditions. It can overgrow because of either a storm or unnoticed water damage (like a leaking pipe behind a wall); elevated levels could cause more serious health issues. Climate change could be exacerbating the problem.
The Natural Resources Defense Council reported dangerous levels of mold spores following Hurricane Katrina in 2005. Outdoor mold concentrations were up to 102,000 spores per cubic meter—double that found in non-flooded areas—with readings in one location hitting 259,000 spores per cubic meter.
In cases of natural disaster, mold might be the obvious culprit for respiratory issues. However, linking symptoms like sneezing, sniffling, sore throat and headaches to mold under less dramatic circumstances can be difficult.
Gittinger asks patients about their environments and looks for patterns in their symptoms: If reactions are severe at home but disappear at work, there could be mold in the house. Allergy testing can reveal whether someone is allergic to specific varieties of mold.
If mold is the culprit, remediation is not a DIY process. Six months after Superstorm Sandy hit the New York metro region in 2012, 61% of homes still had visible mold and 90% of residents who attempted to clean up the mold on their own, often by using bleach, were unsuccessful, according to a study by a group of community organizations. One-quarter of residents in storm-affected areas reported ongoing health issues related to mold exposure.
What’s more, self-remediation can also exacerbate exposure-related health issues, according to a 2013 study published in the journal Remediation. Researchers noted that DIY efforts are often done without proper protective equipment, including respirators.
After professional remediation, the Department of Housing and Human Services suggests fixing water issues such as leaking pipes and wet basements; turning on ventilation fans in damp environments such as kitchens and bathrooms (and not laying carpet in these
areas); and using dehumidifiers to keep indoor moisture levels below 50%. This can help keep mold growth in check and lessen the likelihood of reactions. Symptoms that could be related to mold exposure should be referred to a healthcare professional.
“Some molds grow faster than others and damage might be hard to spot,” Hope says. “Mold can have significant effects on your health. Even if you don’t see it or smell it, it can make you very sick, and it needs to be addressed.”