Mold exposure has the potential to cause adverse health effects. Many people start researching mold sickness when they are faced with a set of symptoms that have no apparent cause. They begin to wonder, are they being affected by something in their environment? There is a wide range of mold-related illnesses, some of which are difficult or even impossible to diagnose. Below, we discuss the different types of mold sickness and the symptoms associated with each condition.
Types of mold sickness and symptoms
Mold can be found almost everywhere, though it thrives in warm, humid environments. It spreads by releasing tiny spores that float through the air. Some types of mold also produce mycotoxins, microscopic organic compounds that can attach to mold spores and cause additional health effects when inhaled.
Mold exposure does not always cause adverse reactions, and different types of mold can cause a person to react in distinctly different ways. However, those who are sensitive to mold or have mold allergies may experience the following symptoms after exposure, according to the CDC:
- Nasal stuffiness
- Eye, throat or skin irritation
- Coughing or wheezing
Reactions may be more severe in those with:
- Mold allergies
- Weakened immune systems
- Chronic lung illnesses
If you are in one of the above groups, the CDC recommends staying away from likely sources of mold, such as wooded areas, compost piles and freshly-cut grass.
Mold allergies, asthma and other respiratory symptoms
Whether you already experience allergy symptoms or not, touching or inhaling mold spores may cause you to become allergic to mold. If you are sensitized to mold as an allergen, exposure may cause a range of allergy symptoms, including sneezing, stuffy or runny nose, and eye, nose and throat irritation, according to the CDC. However, you do not need to be sensitized to mold for it to cause medical symptoms.
Exposure to mold and damp indoor environments has been linked to a wide range of health effects. According to the Institute of Medicine (IOM), both mold and damp indoor environments have been found to cause coughing, wheezing and other respiratory tract symptoms in otherwise healthy individuals. Those with asthma may experience more severe asthma symptoms when exposed to mold or indoor dampness, including tightness, swelling and mucus in the airways. The CDC also notes that workplace exposure to mold in damp buildings has been associated with new-onset asthma.
Fungal infections caused by mold exposure are rare, and usually only happen in those with compromised immune systems. For example, Aspergillus mold is relatively widespread, and most people breathe it daily without any adverse effects. However, Aspergillus exposure can cause those with severely weakened immune systems to develop an infection called aspergillosis. Types of aspergillosis include:
- Invasive pulmonary aspergillosis — A rare but severe condition that can cause pneumonia, fever, chills, bone pain, weight loss and headaches.
- Aspergilloma — A fungal growth in the lung, often in an area of past lung scarring.
- Allergic pulmonary aspergillosis—An allergic reaction to aspergillus that usually only occurs in those with existing lung problems.
Exposure to black mold can lead to a type of toxicosis that is often referred to as black mold poisoning. Black mold releases mycotoxins as a sort of defense mechanism when the growth is disturbed. These mycotoxins travel through the air on mold spores and are small enough to be easily inhaled. The class of toxin produced by black mold, trichothecenes, has been proven to be detrimental to humans, according to Dr. Lauren Tessier, a naturopathic physician practicing in Vermont and New York.
Though exposure to mycotoxins can sometimes cause the allergic symptoms listed above, it may also present in non-allergic symptoms, including:
- Cognitive impairment
- Sleep difficulties
- Circulation problems
- Digestive complaints
- Joint pain
Note: Much of the information available on mold-related toxicoses comes from the functional medicine domain, which is a type of alternative medicine. This branch of medicine uses some diagnoses—such as chronic inflammatory response syndrome (CIRS)—that have not been accepted by the traditional medical community.
Building-related mold sickness
Mold exposure symptoms with no identifiable cause are often attributed to conditions such as sick building syndrome or dampness and mold hypersensitivity syndrome. Though the medical community does not widely accept these diagnoses, many people turn to them when they can find no other explanation for their symptoms.
Sick building syndrome (SBS) is associated with exposure to a specific building, usually an office building. There is no way to identify the source of SBS symptoms positively. However, they are generally attributed to air quality issues, such as volatile organic compounds (VOCs), carbon monoxide (CO) and mold. SBS symptoms vary widely and can include headaches, nausea, dizziness, fatigue, respiratory irritation and chest pains.
Dampness and mold hypersensitivity syndrome (DMHS) typically begins with eye, nose and respiratory tract irritation, but can lead to other symptoms, such as sinusitis, headaches, fatigue and fibromyalgia. Recent studies suggest that this syndrome may be a form of toxicosis, caused by exposure to mycotoxins in damp or water-damaged buildings (Tuuminen & Lohi, 2018). However, more research is needed to make any firm conclusions about DMHS.
Indoor air quality solutions for mold
The best way to avoid mold in the home or workplace is to prevent its growth altogether. Because mold thrives in damp, warm environments, you can try:
- Keeping the relative humidity in your home between 30% and 50%.
- Checking high-moisture areas, such as window sills, under-sink cabinets and indoor plants, regularly for visible mold growth.
- Increasing ventilation in your home—especially in high-moisture areas such as the bathroom, kitchen and laundry room. You can do this by installing an exhaust fan, running your HVAC system or opening windows (as long as it is not humid outside).
- Adding an air purifier to help remove mold spores from the air in your home. Make sure to follow the manufacturer’s instructions on cleaning and replacing the filters. The Molekule air purifier with proprietary PECO technology destroys mold spores that pass through the device, instead of trapping them within the unit.
If you do find mold in your home or workplace, the California Department of Public Health recommends:
- Reporting any mold sighting immediately to your landlord, employer or other entity in charge of the building’s safety.
- Removing the source of excess moisture, such as fixing a leaky pipe.
- Cleaning up any mold sites quickly and carefully.
When you are removing mold growth from your home, you should take certain precautions to ensure that you eliminate both the mold and the source of dampness. The EPA suggests scrubbing mold off of all hard surfaces using water and detergent and throwing away moldy fabrics such as carpets and curtains. For larger moldy areas, mold in air conditioners or mold growth caused by contaminated water, you may need to hire an experienced professional to thoroughly and safely eliminate the problem.
It is always a good idea to limit your exposure to mold, especially if you suspect that it may be the cause of your symptoms. By keeping an eye out for signs of mold growth and preserving the overall air quality in your home, you can help protect yourself from the different types of mold-related illnesses.