Mold is found throughout the environment, and grows best in moist environments. This type of fungus plays an important role in the decomposition of trees, leaves and other organic matter, and certain molds are used in the production of foods, such as cheese.
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However, touching or inhaling mold or mold spores — the seeds that help mold reproduce — can cause health effects. Respiratory symptoms are most common, occurring as a result of irritation, mold allergy or asthma. Also, people with compromised immune or respiratory systems are more likely to get a serious infection from mold.
Asthma and Allergy
Molds live everywhere, but when spores and particles get into the air — as with large or indoor mold growth, or when mold is disturbed — health effects can occur. Inhaling mold or mold spores can trigger allergic reactions in some people, and can cause or worsen asthma symptoms.
These health effects may be immediate or delayed. Most often, an allergic response leads to hay fever-like symptoms, such as runny nose, congestion, sneezing, itchy throat, irritated eyes, coughing or wheezing.
Mold can also irritate the eyes, nose, throat, skin and lungs — even in people who do not have allergies. Inhaling particles from large mold growth, such as compost piles, moldy mounds of hay, or from a water-damaged home, can lead to additional symptoms which include skin rash, shortness of breath and fever.
Some people complain of health effects whenever they spend time in a certain building. Referred to as sick building syndrome, the Environmental Protection Agency links these symptoms, which may also include headache and fatigue, to a variety of indoor air quality problems including poor ventilation or airborne exposure to mold, bacteria, copy machine fumes, cleaning agents, carpeting and other pollutants.
Severe Health Effects
In some cases, mold exposure can lead to serious lung infections. However, these are more likely to occur in people who already have a respiratory disease, such as chronic emphysema or bronchitis, or in people undergoing cancer therapy or taking other medications that suppress the immune system. Antifungal medications are used to treat these infections.
Many other symptoms, such as memory loss, bleeding in the lungs and extreme fatigue are blamed on mold sickness, but according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC), the link between mold and these serious symptoms has not been proven. Since dust mites and bacteria can also be found in moldy environments, more research is needed clarify the cause of these severe health complaints.
Control the growth of mold in your home by ventilating the bathroom, laundry and cooking areas, and by using a dehumidifier if needed to avoid too much indoor air moisture. Remove any indoor mold growth using soap and water, or with a bleach solution of no more than 1 cup of household bleach and 1 gallon of water, according to the CDC.
If your home has been damaged by flooding, or if your home has large amounts of mold growth, seek professional guidance for safe and effective cleanup. If you attribute any health problems symptoms to mold exposure, see your doctor.
Reviewed by Kay Peck, MPH RD