What to do if you breathe in mold
Of any problem around the house, mold can be one of the most tedious to deal with. It’s stubborn, it spreads easily and, without the right knowledge or professional help, it can be difficult to get rid of. On top of all of this, many homeowners live in perpetual fear of mold due to the effects it may have on their health. Over the years, mold has developed a reputation for being toxic, causing chronic diseases and even causing death in some people.
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?
Like bacteria and viruses, mold is a living organism. More specifically, it’s a fungus that thrives in warm, damp areas with minimal light exposure. Mold starts out in the form of a spore, a tiny microorganism that is invisible to the naked eye. These minuscule spores travel from place to place mostly by drifting through the air and along with the wind in search of a decent surface to land on.
Once mold spores have taken root in an area with the right growing conditions, they start spreading along the surface, eventually blooming into the recognizable mold patches you might see in your home. These patches are called mold colonies, and by the time you begin to notice them, there’s a good chance they’ve already spread further than what you can immediately see.
There are three main types of mold:
- Allergenic molds, which are mild in nature and the least harmful of the three types. Allergenic molds are typically not dangerous in small amounts, but they may cause allergic reactions the longer you’re exposed to them.
- Pathogenic molds, which can cause serious infections in the body. Molds in this category can cause severe illness in healthy and compromised immune systems alike.
- Toxigenic molds, which can be harmful under specific circumstances. These molds aren’t necessarily dangerous on their own, but they release chemicals known as mycotoxins that can have negative effects on the body.
What Happens When You Breathe in Mold Spores?
The human immune system is designed to react when foreign contaminants enter the body; this is exactly what can happen when you breathe in mold spores. 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 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:
- Coughing and wheezing
- Runny nose
- Postnasal drip
- Itchy throat and nose
- Itchy or watery eyes
- Redness and dry skin
- Asthma attack
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.
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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 the 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. Some sources of information will tell you that mold exposure of any kind can be deadly, whereas others will say that only exposure to toxic molds can seriously harm you.
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 About Black Mold?
While “black mold” is often used as a blanket term to describe many forms of mold, the picture of black mold that probably appears in your mind is that of 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.
Stachybotrys chartarum is one of the most widely feared types of mold, often being used as the most dangerous and potentially life-threatening mold in households worldwide. This was largely impacted between 1993 and 1996, when 10 young infants in Cleveland, OH, all developed a serious condition known as idiopathic pulmonary hemorrhage (bleeding in the lungs). One of the infants passed away from this disease. The Center for Disease Control and Prevention conducted a study on this incident and determined that each of the children was living in households with very high levels of Stachybotrys chartarum. Following the release of this CDC’s research, people all over the country concluded that black mold was extremely dangerous and potentially lethal.
However, the CDC was unable to establish a provable link between idiopathic pulmonary hemorrhage and exposure to the mold. The occurrences of this disease in the affected infants weren’t consistent with previous human or animal exposure to black mold or any related fungi, and that clusters like this one hadn’t occurred in any other areas with significant amounts of black mold. In fact, only one similar incident was found — a study was conducted on another group of children affected by the same illness in Chicago back in 1992, wherein seven children were infected. One passed away while the others recovered after several days of antibiotic treatment. In this particular case study, the presence of mold wasn’t even a factor in the 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.
Can Mold Grow in Your Lungs?
Unfortunately, this is a possibility with certain infections, especially aspergillosis. However, it is treatable in most cases with some oral medications and, less frequently, 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.