When you have a mold allergy, you know when mold is in the air. You can experience symptoms from itchy eyes and a stuffy nose to coughing and wheezing. While these symptoms are uncomfortable and have you seeking relief, the good news is that a mold allergy is not life-threatening. Still, it can make you pretty miserable.
While seasonal allergies occur only during a specific time of year, mold grows year-round. A mold allergy can rear its head almost anytime as long as it's damp enough. But it's true that you are most prone to experiencing mold allergy symptoms outdoors from midsummer to early fall, with mold thriving amid piles of decomposing leaves.
This article will cover everything you need to know about mold allergy symptoms and relief. You will learn about mold toxicity, determining if mold is causing your symptoms, treating mold allergies, the outlook here, prevention, and other aspects of reacting to mold.
Table of Contents
What Does a Mold Allergy Feel Like?
A mold allergy may feel not too different from the symptoms you may experience if you're sensitive to pollen or to animal dander.
After inhaling mold spores, allergy symptoms flare. People with this allergy may find themselves feeling the urge to sneeze and having a stuffy or runny nose. They also complain about feeling that their nose, mouth, or throat feels irritated, and their eyes may be red, itchy, and with a tendency to water. In short, they feel pretty miserable.
What Causes a Mold Allergy?
Whether you're inside or out, you can be exposed to mold. Mold can grow anywhere as long as the temperature is right and there is enough moisture around. You may have mold growing in your home and not be aware that it's there. Once the spores (mold "seeds") are in the air, you can breathe them in.
Not everyone is sensitive to mold, but if you are, your immune system gets triggered. Although the spores are generally harmless, your immune system identifies them as an invader. The result is an allergic response. Anything that your immune system responds to like this is known as an allergen.
One way the immune system responds to a threat is to release the compound histamine. This reaction is aimed at eliminating the invader from the body. The body's response to histamine is usually to sneeze or cough, with eyes itching and tearing, trying to purge the invader.
In the case of an allergy, the body overreacts to mold spores. After initial exposure, anytime someone with a mold allergy encounters them, the immune system takes off, and an allergic response will be triggered.
Other Mold Allergy Symptoms
While most symptoms of mold allergy come on right away and are readily recognized, you may find yourself contending with a stuffy nose that seems to get worse over time. Or, after mold exposure, you experience allergic asthma. Symptoms of allergic asthma include the following:
- Shortness of breath
- Tightness in the chest
In some rare cases, after mold exposure, you may experience what's known as allergic bronchopulmonary aspergillosis (ABPA). This reaction to a soil fungus called Aspergillus fumigatus is both an inflammatory and allergic reaction. This can mimic asthma with symptoms like shortness of breath, the feeling of tightness in the chest, extensive wheezing, and coughing.
Children and Mold Allergies
If your child is exposed to mold, you may be worried about how this may affect them, particularly if you have noticed mold in your home.
It's not usually necessary to have a child tested for allergies unless they have allergy or asthma symptoms. Discuss any such symptoms with a healthcare provider. They may refer you to an allergy specialist.
Screening for mold allergy should be done by a pediatric allergy specialist and will involve skin and blood tests. These tests will look for mold-specific antibodies that can set off allergy symptoms.
Is Mold Toxic?
One of the fears with mold is that it can be dangerous to your health. Can it be toxic to your system?
While molds themselves are not toxic, some forms, such as Stachybotrys chartarum (black mold), produce toxins known as mycotoxins. Some possible reactions to mycotoxins may include:
- Breathing and eye irritation
- Congenital (present at birth) anomalies
- Immune system suppression
If you have such symptoms, avoid further exposure and seek medical attention.
Continued exposure to any kind of mold may lead to hypersensitivity pneumonitis. This can occur from breathing in an allergen such as mold, whether in your home or outdoors. Another name for this condition is "farmer's lung." It frequently occurs among farmers who are regularly exposed to mold amid the hay in their barns.
Symptoms of hypersensitivity pneumonitis may mirror those of pneumonia (lung infection). Unfortunately, this condition doesn't get better with antibiotics the way bacterial pneumonia would.
Those with this condition may experience the following:
- Shortness of breath
- Body aches
- Night sweats
- Extreme tiredness
Such symptoms may come on between two to nine hours after exposure to mold and may continue for up to three days. If your exposure is at work, you may make the connection after you've had a chance to take a few days off and notice an improvement in your symptoms, which return when you're back on the job.
Fortunately, even among people like farmers, who in their occupations can't avoid substances that can cause a reaction, a reaction is rare. Up to 95% of individuals in these professions never develop such a hypersensitivity reaction.
How to Tell If Mold Is Making You Sick
If you have been exposed to mold and are feeling unwell, you may wonder whether the mold is at the root or if maybe it's something else. There are some tests that may shed some light.
Your healthcare provider may suggest that you test to see if you have any antibodies to mold. While this test won't verify if mold is affecting your health, it will let you know if you have indeed been exposed.
For a mold allergy, consult an allergy specialist for the appropriate testing and to get a diagnosis. They can perform skin or blood tests.
Skin tests are quicker and less expensive and tend to be more sensitive than blood tests. But a radioallergosorbent (RAST) test can determine the level of mold antibodies in your blood. This, however, can take around two weeks and tends to be expensive.
How Are Mold Allergies Treated?
If you are sensitive to mold, you can proceed in several ways. The primary recommendation is to avoid mold exposure whenever possible.
In some cases, your healthcare provider may recommend that you use antiallergic medication to treat the allergy symptoms, such as itchy eyes and sneezing. Some medicines that may help here include:
- Nasal corticosteroids: These sprays, which are often the first treatment offered, tamp down on the inflammation caused by mold allergies and tend to be very effective. Examples include Flonase (fluticasone) and Rhinocort (budesonide).
- Antihistamines: These quiet the itch, runny nose, and sneezing by blocking the histamines that are responsible for causing these allergic symptoms. Examples include Allegra (fexofenadine), Claritin (loratadine), and Zyrtec (cetirizine).
- Mast cell stabilizers: These keep mast cells (a type of immune system cell) from releasing histamine, which can otherwise cause allergic symptoms. An example is cromolyn sodium.
- Corticosteroid inhaler: If you have aggravated symptoms of asthma linked to a mold allergy, your allergist may prescribe this to reduce airway inflammation and improve your breathing.
Your allergist may also recommend allergy immunotherapy. This involves getting shots with increasing amounts of the allergen present to make you less sensitive to this over time.
You may also be a candidate for what's known as sublingual immunotherapy (SLIT). This approach involves putting drops containing a small amount of mold antigen under your tongue. The idea is to get your body to withstand greater amounts over time.
What’s the Outlook for Mold Allergies?
In many cases, if you have a mold allergy, you can get it under control with the aid of your family healthcare provider—this is usually sufficient.
But if you're still experiencing symptoms after three to six months or you've needed to go in for emergency treatment, then you may need to see an allergy specialist who can recommend more advanced treatment.
How to Prevent Mold Reactions
If you can prevent mold exposure from occurring in the first place, you are ahead of the game. Here are some strategies to try:
- Use a dehumidifier to reduce indoor humidity to less than 45%, preferably around 35%.
- Try central air-conditioning that uses a high-efficiency particle air (HEPA) filter to trap mold particles.
- Get an air purifier to eliminate mold spores.
- Use an exhaust fan in the bathroom, or make sure the window is open after showering.
- Promptly repair plumbing leaks.
- Block off any water seepage into the basement.
- Use space heaters in basement areas to raise the temperature (but do be careful that these don't create a fire hazard).
- Get rid of bathroom or basement carpeting.
- Scour sinks frequently.
- Use allergy-proof covers for pillows and bedding.
A mold allergy can make you feel pretty miserable, with symptoms that mimic hay fever or may bring on an asthma attack with symptoms like shortness of breath, coughing, wheezing, and tightness in the chest. This can happen any time of year and may occur inside or outside.
If you wonder if you may have a mold allergy, you can undergo a skin or a blood test to diagnose it. Treatments for mold allergies range from medications to ease symptoms to immune therapy to reduce sensitivity to mold. Still, mold prevention may ultimately be your best bet.