Unlike those troubled from pollen allergies who experience flare-ups of sinus problems in the spring months, if you find yourself suffering from itchy eyes, congestion, sinus pain and pressure during the fall months, then it is likely that you have an allergy to mold and mildew.
A staggering 93% of chronic sinus infections are related to mold exposure, according to the Mayo Clinic, the largest not-for-profit medical practice and research center in the world.
In this installment of the Spotlight series, Dr. Bennett answers your questions about mold and mildew and how reducing your exposure with tips to help ease your sinus pain.
In general, if you suffer from mold allergies, it is best to avoid outside mold spore, piles of leaves, dense vegetation and plant debris when out of doors. As for indoor tips, invest in a dehumidifier or humidifier and air filtration system, machines that should be run to regulate the moisture in the air and purify the air, respectively. Also, be sure to keep only a few indoor plants and keep your windows closed if the mold spore counts are high.
What is mold and where is it found?
Mold is a type of fungus. There are three principle types of molds of which to be aware:
Allergenic Molds: this is the least dangerous type of mold, and the kind that will be referred to throughout the article. It is also the most troublesome type of mold if you have been diagnosed with a mold allergy and includes the most common type of mold, called altemaria, which affects the nose, mouth and upper respiratory tract, causing allergic reactions.
Pathogenic Molds: you are more susceptible to this type of mold if you are currently sick or have a weakened immune system.
Toxigenic (“Toxic”) Molds: the most dangerous type of mold; produces mycotoxins, linked to severe health effects such as immunosuppression and cancer.
Mold fungi reproduce and grow rapidly through the release of spores (or cells) into the air. These spores are typically too microscopic to see, even though there may be hundreds or thousands in one’s home. Mold spores breed in damp areas but can survive in even the driest spots because they have the ability to lay dormant until the right conditions exist to begin reproducing again.
Mold needs only moisture and oxygen, so it can be found in any area or in any substance so long as those two ingredients are present. Mold is often found in carpet, wood, leather, fabrics and even food.
Could my sinus infections be caused by a mold allergy?
Did you know that 16% of men and women in the United States have a specific genetic trait in their DNA that makes them more prone to mold allergies than those without it? Consider the fact that you could very well be one of these individuals who carry this trait.
To find out, your doctor can give you a special allergy test. Note that there are two different types of mold allergies that require two different types of tests: skin and blood tests.
The Skin Test, is based on the body’s immediate reaction to mold. This is based on either a prick of the skin or a patch placed on the skin and your immune system’s local skin response to the mold allergens. If you have a mold allergy, the mold binds with skin antibodies and skin cells. This will cause mast cells to release histamines into the body causing redness and swelling in that area. That’s also why antihistamines prevent the symptoms of an allergic reaction.
The Blood Test involves the testing and analysis of a blood sample. Blood is analyzed at a lab for the presence of a limited selection of antibodies the body may have produced. The amount of antibodies will tell how allergic you are to a certain substance. This and the skin test are usually covered by your health insurance. Doctors who perform the blood test report that sufferers of chronic sinusitis test positive for a mold allergy up to 90% of the time; the skin test, however, shows a positive result for only 30% of the same population.
Chronic or acute sinusitis may be the result of a mold allergen if you have the following symptoms:
- Inflammation of the nasal passages
- Body aches
- Coughing and wheezing
- Post-nasal drip
- Itchy rashes
Nasal polyps can also, but not always, be caused by mold. A polyp is a growth in the sinus tissues that are typically the size of a grape. Surgery is usually required for removal. Like regular sinus infections, they can be caused by inflammation of the tissues due to mold exposure. Eliminating mold from surfaces and the air are the best way to reduce your risk of developing nasal polyps caused by mold and mildew.
In addition to sinusitis and nasal polyps, mold can also cause muscle and joint pain, headaches, anxiety, shortness of breath and gastro-intestinal problems.
Is there mold in my house?
If you or your doctor suspect that mold may be contributing to your chronic sinusitis, it is possible that the source of the mold is inside your home. Target the following areas when inspecting or cleaning your house for mold:
- Christmas trees
- Leaky sinks
- Behind appliances connected to plumbing (the refrigerator, washer, dishwater)
- Leaky roofs
- Windows that collect condensation
- Basements and other areas with high humidity
A common misconception related to mold in the house concerns the belief that those who live in a newly built house are not at risk for mold allergens. This is untrue. During the construction of a house, the foundation is often exposed to rain and humidity, hotbeds for mold and mildew. If you suspect your house contains mold and your sinuses are being affected, buy a gravity plate testing kit, the most common option for homeowners. A gravity plate test helps detect hidden mold present in cabinetry, crawl spaces, closets, furniture and ductwork.
A typical test consists of a simple Petri dish that contains a nutrient in the bottom. To use it, remove the top of the Petri dish, and wait. After four to eight hours, if there is mold in your house, you will be able to see tiny “spores” or “colonies” in the plate that have begun to grow on account of the nutrient. The test kit comes with an identifier booklet, allowing you to identify which type of spore corresponds with each type of mold. Remember that if you count 0-4 distinct types of mold, and feel no sinus infection symptoms, this is okay. However, if you do experience symptoms associated with a mold allergy, you should make sure that your indoor mold levels are at a 0-2 level.
You can pick up a mold detection kit either online, or at your local hardware store. Mold detection kits are also available for air sampling and moisture. For those who prefer to leave the mold to the experts, a quick Google search for mold control companies will turn up the professionals located in your area.
How can I prevent the onset of sinus infections caused by mold?
First, irrigate. Irrigating your sinuses flushes them of not only mucus and congestion, but also of the mold itself. When the mold is flushed out, your sinuses and nasal cavities are able to heal now that the inflammatory agent is no longer present.
Perhaps the most effective treatment is antigen removal, done by killing the antigen in the mold spore. You may need to hire professionals to inspect your house or work space and clear it from any mold, otherwise the trigger that causes your immune system to react to the mold by causing inflammation of the sinuses and other symptoms, will continue.
Treat your Car
Your car is another area that should be carefully inspected for the presence of mold. Indications of mold include a musty smell upon entering and frequent sneezing while inside.
Inspect Your Basement
Mold can be present in any area of your house, but most often, it is located in the basement, bathroom or laundry area. Damp and wet basements are even more susceptible. A professional water damage team can handle fixing the problem, or you can take the do-it-yourself approach by removing any wet items, drying the area with a dehumidifier, and then using a non-toxic mold removal product.
Remove Carpeting and Install Hardwood Flooring
Carpets are another key area to target when removing mold in one’s house. Carpet not only contain mold, but can grow mold as well as dust mites. Merely steam cleaning and vacuuming the carpets in not enough to remove it, because mold trapped in the fibers in the carpet is too deep to be seen. Opt for wood or pergo flooring instead.
Keep in mind that if you discover that the mold types inside your house are similar to that outdoors, this does not mean that your house is not still the sole contributor to your sinus infections. Mold spores found outdoors are less concentrated and are less commonly linked to sinus infections, thus, even if the mold levels indoors and outdoors are the same, it is best to remove the mold as soon as possible.
Another common misconception is that sinus infections are not caused mold, but rather bacteria. If you have tested positive to fungal allergies, this means that mold in your nose can cause white blood cells to react to kill the fungus in the sinus lining. A pit then forms in the sinus lining, trapping mucus and blocking it from draining properly, causing a sinus infection that must be treated with antibiotics. If you are still breathing in mold and mildew, the infection is likely to return. Thus, removal of the mold at the source can be the key to stopping the infection, not treating the bacteria that result.
The first step in treating a mold-based sinus infection is getting tested to determine whether you have a mold allergy, and whether it is present if your home. Once you have established that mold is the root cause of your chronic sinusitis, follow the tips listed above as they apply to you. Don’t forget to consult with your doctor if you start to develop more serious physical conditions as a result of exposure to mold.