A few weeks ago, after a particularly bad bout of asthma and bronchitis, I was hospitalized with symptoms that included tightening of the chest, wheezing, dizziness, exhaustion, and eye irritation. I’d never experienced some of those symptoms in relation to previous asthma attacks and after getting the results from a CAT scan, I learned that I also had pneumonia.
Personally unfamiliar with pneumonia, having never had it, I later discovered through a bizarre coincidence, that my pneumonia was related to a mold allergy and that mold exposure — for me — was toxic.
Determining Mold Allergies
Allergists or pulmonary specialists who suspect a mold allergy generally take a complete medical history and administer skin tests where extracts of different types of fungi (mold) are used to scratch the skin.
Results that develop on the skin at the site of the scratch determine the level of sensitivity or hypersensitivity to the allergen being tested, and doctors either administer drugs to mold-allergic patients or begin immunotherapy (allergy shots).
Years ago, when I was tested for mold, the results registered off the chart and my allergy to mold was given a 4+ designation out of a possible 4. Neither I nor any member of the hospital staff in my recent hospital stay, however, thought to consider a mold allergy as the culprit in my latest illness.
The Surprising Link Between Mold Allergy, Asthma, and Pneumonia
Last week, my kitchen floor flooded due to a leak in the ceiling. What contractors discovered on the ceiling, under my roof, and growing in the insulation explained my ongoing illness. Mold, not toxic mold, but mold nonetheless, grew inside the insulation, on the underside of the roof, and through the drywall on my ceiling. For somebody with asthma who is also allergic to mold, the existence of mold in the every day living space presents a life-threatening complication — a toxic reaction.
You don’t have to be allergic to mold, however, to feel the pernicious effects of mold when you have asthma. According to Mayo Clinic, “Although a mold allergy is the most common problem caused by exposure to mold, mold can cause illness without causing an allergic reaction.” In addition to infections, mold allergies can cause toxic reactions that include flu-like symptoms, skin infections, and pneumonia.
From Mayo Clinic: “An irritant reaction is caused when substances from molds called volatile organic compounds irritate the mucous membranes in the body. Symptoms of an irritant reaction are similar to an allergy and include eye irritation, runny nose, cough, voice hoarseness, headache and skin irritation. With a mold allergy, your symptoms will generally get progressively worse with each exposure to mold, while an irritant reaction doesn’t get worse.”
Who is At Risk of Developing Allergies to Mold?
According to the Asthma and Allergy Foundation (AAFA) of America, “It is common for people to get mold allergy if they or other family members are allergic to substances such as pollen or animal dander. People may become allergic to only mold or fungi, or they may also have problems with dust mites, pollens and other spores.” My allergy to animals, dust, and pollen contributed to the long-lasting toxic reaction I had to the mold.
Mold can be an occupational hazard for other people as well — “farmers, dairymen, loggers, bakers, mill workers, carpenters, greenhouse employees, wine makers and furniture repairers,” (AAFA) because their daily exposure to the elements puts them at risk for developing a mold allergy.
Toxic Reaction to Mold
Toxic reactions to mold are caused by eating, drinking, or inhaling substances called mycotoxins, and as with an irritant reaction, “the symptoms of a toxic reaction may also include flu-like symptoms, eye and skin irritation, and breathing troubles.” (Mayo Clinic)
Other toxic reactions to mold include headaches, nervousness, dizziness, difficulty concentrating, and extreme fatigue.
Most healthy people can handle mold exposure but for people with compromised immune systems, nonallergic complications can occur. Because I am still taking chemotherapy for my breast cancer and because I have asthma and an allergy to mold, my risk factor for developing a mold infection is high. People who take immune-suppressing drugs are also at risk of developing mold infections and can have toxic reactions to mold.
What To Do If You Suspect You Have a Mold Allergy
If you think you have a mold allergy, seek out an allergist and get tested for sensitivity to mold.
Examine your ceiling for water spots. If you find any, make sure they are not harboring mold. Any place moisture collects is prime real estate for mold. Basements, bathrooms, and laundry rooms, for instance, are common mold-growing areas.
If carpeting gets wet, dry it immediately with a fan. Don’t allow moisture to remain in the carpet.
If bedding includes polyurethane or rubber foam, cover it in plastic to prevent mold from growing so it doesn’t get wet.
Invest in a dehumidifier and place it in moist areas. Dehumidifiers keep the level of moisture down so mold doesn’t have an opportunity to grow.
Purchase a mold testing kit. Mold testing kits allow you to test the mold level in your home. Place one in the ceiling, in the basement, or anywhere you think mold might sprout. Find the the source of the mold and get rid of it.
Check your air conditioner, your shower, under your sinks, your faucets, the inside of your washing machine, and your window sills. Make sure all of those areas are dry and completely void of mold!
Indoor humidity is important in controlling mold. Consider purchasing a hygrometer. It measure humidity levels and can be found at local hardware stores. Your home should be kept at a relative humidity between 30-50%.
Remedies for Ridding Your Home of Mold
According to the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA), you must clean up the mold and eliminate the sources of mold. Using gloves, clean up mold with soap and water. Let the area dry completely.
Use exhaust fans when showering, cooking, or washing dishes. Fix leaks immediately. Don’t allow things to remain wet or damp. Mold can develop within a very short period of time.
When Mold Allergy Symptoms Continue
If you have asthma, pay attention to symptoms that don’t go away. They could indicate a mold allergy: sneezing, watery eyes, itchy eyes, nose and throat, runny or stuffy nose, cough, postnasal drip, or dry, scaly skin.
Colds and flu don’t last forever. If your breathing continues to decline, call an allergist or a pulmonary specialist and discuss the possibility of a mold allergy. Recovery from pneumonia can take a long time. I’m still recovering from this latest illness.
And finally, treat suspected mold-related asthma attacks immediately. Toxic reactions to mold can be fatal if not treated promptly.
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