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Mold and Allergies: 10 Ways to Reduce Symptoms

WebMD Feature provided in collaboration with Healthy Child Healthy World

If you have allergy symptoms year-round -- or if they get worse in damp weather -- you may be allergic to mold. While people with pollen allergies tend to have seasonal symptoms, mold allergies can flare all year long. Indoor mold can be a problem in winter months, because mold will grow in your house where there is enough moisture -- whether it's on a basement wall, in your crawl space, a damp carpet, or behind the bathroom tile.

You may not even realize the mold is there -- but if you're sensitive you'll react with coughing, wheezing, stuffy nose, or irritated eyes.

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"Very often, people don't really know what the problem is," says John Martyny, PhD, an industrial hygienist with National Jewish Health Center in Denver. "They have an allergic reaction, lots of sinus drainage, lots of upper respiratory problems, and it doesn't last for just a month or two. This goes on 12 months a year. It is not a minimal problem -- it can really change your life."

We’re all exposed to mold spores. Mold is a fungus that breaks down plant or animal matter, like leaves, wood, dirt, and food. It’s present both indoors and out. The trouble comes with a mold allergy, when mold spores trigger reactions like allergic rhinitis or asthma. Molds can also produce volatile organic compounds (VOCs) -- the musty odor that irritates eyes, nose, and throat.

Black Mold: Toxic or Not?

What's known as black mold (Stachybotrys chartarum) is a slow-growing mold that grows only on wood, paper, and cotton. It’s often called "toxic black mold," but the mold itself is not poisonous.

"There's no question that the mold spores are very potent, but they are given off in extremely low levels," he tells WebMD. "It's really just another mold. What we see is an allergic reaction or asthma." 

Black mold has been blamed for serious lung problems in a small number of infants, but that has not yet been proven. It's not uncommon for people to develop an allergy to mold -- not just black mold, says David Lang, MD, head of allergy/immunology at the Cleveland Clinic. "Infants, small children, and elderly adults are more likely to react to any type of mold," he says.

It may be hard to get a mold allergy correctly diagnosed. "Very often, the root of the problem isn't identified correctly," Martyny says. "People have these symptoms, but they don't realize they have a moisture and mold problem at home. If you get rid of the allergens -- the mold -- people get better, and they get better pretty fast."

In some cases, mold exposure can cause serious respiratory problems, with symptoms like chest tightness and difficulty breathing. "Some people who are exposed to high levels of any mold for a long time develop lung hypersensitivity -- which leads to scar tissue in the lungs," Martyny explains. "Some people recover when the mold source is removed. But if they've been exposed for a long time, they may never recover."

Coughing, wheezing, runny nose, irritated eyes or throat -- these are all signs of mold allergy. Mold allergies can also trigger an asthma attack, with symptoms like wheezing, coughing, and shortness of breath. If you have these symptoms, see an allergist for skin testing or a blood test to diagnose mold allergy.

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