What to do if you breathe in mold

What to do if you breathe in mold

Among household problems, mold ranks as one of the most troublesome. It’s persistent, spreads quickly, and without the correct knowledge or professional intervention, can be tough to remove. Many homeowners constantly worry about the health implications of breathing in mold, which has a notorious reputation for being toxic, causing chronic conditions, and in extreme cases, leading to death.

The fact of the matter is, there’s a lot more to mold than you might imagine and a lot of misinformation surrounding it. If you’re worried about mold growing in your home and what might happen if you and your loved ones breathe it in, this helpful guide can provide you with insight on what you’re dealing with, what steps you should take and how to tell if your exposure to mold has become dangerous.

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What Is Mold?

Similar to bacteria and viruses, mold is a living organism, specifically a type of fungus that flourishes in warm, moist environments with limited light. Initially, mold appears as a spore, an almost invisible microorganism. These tiny spores move through the air or by wind, seeking suitable surfaces for growth.

When mold spores find optimal conditions, they begin to spread across surfaces, eventually forming visible mold patches in homes. Known as mold colonies, these patches indicate that mold has likely extended beyond visible areas.

There are three main types of mold:

  • Allergenic Molds: These molds are less harmful and primarily cause allergic reactions and asthma symptoms in sensitive individuals. They are the least likely to cause severe health problems but can be bothersome to those with mold allergies.
  • Pathogenic molds: These types of molds can cause serious infections in the body. Molds in this category can cause severe illness in healthy and compromised immune systems alike. This type of mold is more concerning in homes with young children, elderly residents, or individuals who are immunocompromised.
  • Toxigenic molds: These molds produce mycotoxins, substances that can lead to serious health issues when inhaled. Exposure to toxigenic molds can cause symptoms ranging from mild irritation to more severe health conditions, including neurological problems and, in extreme cases, death. Stachybotrys chartarum, commonly known as black mold, is a well-known example of a toxigenic mold.

What Happens When You Breathe in Mold Spores or Mold Dust?

The human immune system is designed to react when foreign contaminants enter the body; this is exactly what can happen when you accidentally breathe in mold spores or mold dust. People who are asthmatic or allergic to mold may experience a more severe reaction than those who are not, but anyone can experience adverse symptoms after too much exposure to mold.

Mold spores and mold dust can enter your airways through your nose and mouth, and they may irritate your exposed eyes and skin as well. Once the spores have made their way into your body, your immune system will try to get rid of them by eliciting a series of physical responses from you, such as coughing or sneezing. The intensity of these responses is mostly based on how sensitive you are to mold.

The most common symptoms of mold exposure include:

  • Respiratory Symptoms: These can range from coughing, wheezing, and difficulty breathing to more severe asthma attacks. 
  • Nasal and Sinus Congestion: Exposure to mold spores can cause the nasal passages and sinuses to become inflamed and congested.
  • Throat Irritation: Some people may experience a sore or itchy throat after inhaling mold spores.
  • Eye Irritation: Mold spores can cause the eyes to become red, itchy, and watery.
  • Runny Nose or Post Nasal Drip: Inhaling mold spores can trigger a runny nose and postnasal drip as the body produces excess mucus to flush out the irritants, leading to nasal discomfort and throat irritation.
  • Redness and dry skin: Direct contact with mold spores can also lead to skin rashes or hives in some individuals.

    Fortunately, mold exposure symptoms typically only last as long as the mold spores are present in your body. Once you’ve cleared away the mold in your home, bathed and circulated fresh, clean air throughout your respiratory system, the side effects should lessen within a day or two.

    In people with weakened immune systems, elderly individuals, infants, and those with chronic lung diseases, inhaling mold spores can lead to more serious health issues, such as fungal infections in the lungs.

    It’s important to address mold growth in living environments promptly to minimize exposure and potential health risks. If you suspect you’re experiencing health problems related to mold exposure, consulting a healthcare provider for a proper diagnosis and treatment plan is advisable.

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    How Can You Tell if Mold Is Making You Sick?

    It can be hard to distinguish common mold exposure symptoms from those of an infection or a more serious condition. Many of these illnesses share a lot of the same side effects, and you may not be able to tell that you’re sick until several days after exposure.

    While most healthy people may only experience the temporary symptoms listed above, those with more compromised or weakened immune systems are at a greater risk of becoming sick after mold exposure. People in this group include the elderly, pregnant women, babies, young children and those with chronic health conditions.

    There are a few serious illnesses that can be caused by mold exposure, but each usually has its own telltale symptoms that separates it from the others. Remember: the most common sign of an infection is a fever, so check your temperature regularly if you fear you may be sick.

    These are just a few examples of illnesses that can be caused by molds:

    • Aspergillosis – an infection that typically comes after exposure to molds in the aspergillus family. These molds are often found in decaying vegetation, such as dead leaves, compost piles and stored grain. People who have gone through chemotherapy, had an organ transplant or have compromised lungs are the most likely demographic to contract aspergillosis. Common side effects include coughing (sometimes accompanied by blood or mucous), fever, chest pain, difficulty breathing, chills, shock or kidney/liver problems.
    • Farmer’s Lung – a disease typically caused by frequent exposure to certain types of mold that grow on crops. As the name suggests, farmers are the most likely to contract Farmer’s Lung due to constantly breathing in mold dust particles from things like hay, animal grain and some pesticides. Common side effects include dry cough, fever, chills, rapid heart rate, aches and pain, shortness of breath, and reduced appetite. 
    • Mucormycosis – a rare but very serious infection caused by very specific molds called mucormycetes. These molds are often found in decaying matter such as soil, rotten wood and compost piles. Mucormycosis can affect several different organ systems depending on where the mold spores enter the body. Common side effects include hePLEASEDELETEches, fever, nasal congestion, lesions in the nose or mouth, cough, shortness of breath, chest pain, nausea, vomiting, abdominal pain and blisters that appear black.

    In any of these cases, your course of action should be the same: Speak with your doctor right away. Keep track of any symptoms you’ve had and how they’ve changed, and give your doctor as much information as possible. Most mold-borne illnesses can be treated through prescription medications. Some more severe illnesses may require surgical intervention, but this isn’t very common.

    Can Mold Exposure Be Lethal?

    This is a major area where information becomes muddled. While some sources claim that any mold exposure can be fatal, others argue that only toxic mold varieties pose a significant health risk.

    Fortunately, exposure to mold (even toxigenic mold) isn’t usually lethal to a healthy person. However, higher-risk groups can experience far more serious health complications after being exposed to pathogenic and toxigenic molds. Similar to those listed above, people at a higher risk include:

    • Pregnant women
    • Babies and young children
    • The elderly
    • People with chronic illness
    • People who have recently had surgery or major medical treatments (like chemotherapy)
    • People with compromised immune systems or immune disorders

    What Happens If You Breathe in Black Mold?

    The term “black mold” is frequently used to broadly categorize various mold types, yet the specific mold often envisioned is Stachybotrys chartarum. This mold usually has a greenish-black appearance and tends to grow on materials with a high cellulose content, such as paper, fiberboard and drywall. Black mold needs a continuous supply of moisture to grow and spread, so it’s especially prevalent in locations with water leaks, water damage, condensation or flooding.

    Black mold (or stachybotrys chartarum)  has gained significant attention and fear, often cited as one of the most dangerous and potentially life-threatening molds found in residential settings worldwide. This heightened concern can be traced back to a series of incidents between 1993 and 1996, where 10 infants in Cleveland, OH, developed idiopathic pulmonary hemorrhage, a severe lung condition, with tragically one infant succumbing to the illness. These cases were linked to homes with notably high levels of Stachybotrys chartarum, leading to widespread alarm following the release of a study by the Center for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC).

    Despite the initial panic, subsequent analysis by the CDC could not conclusively link the mold exposure to the pulmonary condition, highlighting inconsistencies with prior human or animal exposures to black mold. Interestingly, this cluster of cases in Cleveland remains somewhat unique, as similar patterns have not been observed in other regions with significant black mold presence. A comparable investigation in Chicago in 1992 found seven children with the same lung condition, with one fatality, yet mold exposure was not identified as a contributing factor in their homes.

    Ultimately, today’s data shows that black mold poses about the same health risks as nearly any other type of mold in existence. For generally healthy people, exposure to black mold is not considered lethal. That being said, prolonged exposure to this or any other type of mold can still potentially cause unpleasant symptoms or even pose the risk of more complicated infections. If there is mold growing somewhere in your home, it’s always a good idea to do your research and consider calling a professional for help if the outbreak is especially large.

    What Happens If You Breathe in Mold Dust From Food?

    Inhaling mold or green mold dust from foods or fruit can lead to respiratory irritation and allergic reactions in some individuals, especially those with mold allergies or compromised immune systems. When mold spores from food are inhaled, they can irritate the airways, potentially causing symptoms such as coughing, sneezing, and difficulty breathing. In more sensitive individuals, this exposure can trigger asthma attacks or lead to more severe respiratory conditions. While the immediate health effects are usually not severe for most people, long or frequent exposure to mold spores from food, should be avoided to minimize the risk of adverse health outcomes. 


    Can Mold Grow in Your Lungs?

    Unfortunately, mold can grow in your lungs, a scenario often associated with specific infections like aspergillosis. Fortunately, in most instances, this condition can be effectively managed with oral medications, and sometimes may require surgery.

    Mold spores spread through the air; any time you’re around a mold colony, you’re breathing in some of those mold spores and introducing them to the sensitive tissue inside your trachea (windpipe) and lungs. The longer you breathe them in, the longer the spores have a chance to find an open cavity in your lungs to settle down and colonize. For most people with healthy lungs, there really isn’t any open space inside, meaning the risk of this happening is relatively low. For individuals who have had recent surgeries or other diseases that can cause open cavities in the lungs (emphysema or tuberculosis), the risk is much higher.

    Fortunately, your doctor can prescribe you oral corticosteroids to help bring down the inflammation and reduce symptoms. For more invasive cases of this disease, an oral antifungal may be prescribed. Especially severe cases may require surgery to physically remove mold from the lungs, though this is less common and typically only done if side effects become dangerous (causing excessive internal bleeding, for example).

    How Can You Tell if There’s Mold in Your Lungs?

    If your exposure to mold is fairly minimal, chances are you may not even experience any symptoms. For more prolonged cases of exposure, the symptoms are generally recognizable across the board: sneezing, coughing, wheezing, chest tightness or discomfort, and shortness of breath are all strong indicators that there are mold spores in your lungs.

    The issue here is that all of these symptoms can be found in a variety of illnesses or allergic reactions, so it can be difficult to directly pin down mold exposure as the cause. Pay close attention to your symptoms, as well as when they started and how they change. Make a mental note of when you discovered mold growing around you, how long you were around it and whether or not you had any protection (like a medical face covering). If you fear at all that there may be mold in your lungs, don’t hesitate — contact medical professionals and let them know what’s going on. It’s always better to be safe than sorry.

    Mold exposure can potentially cause serious problems, but most healthy people have nothing to worry about aside from some uncomfortable, temporary symptoms. If you’re worried about mold in your home, contact your local professional to learn what you can do about it.

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