Are Your Seasonal Allergies Actually An Allergy to Mold? - Dr. Michael Ruscio, DC

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Are Your Seasonal Allergies Actually An Allergy to Mold?

How to Assess and Treat a Mold Allergy

Key Takeaways:

  • Symptoms of an allergy to mold include a stuffy nose, itchy/watery eyes, cough, shortness of breath, headaches, and fatigue. 
  • A mold allergy may cause more severe symptoms than mold sensitivity, such as an asthma attack or extreme weakness.
  • Mold allergies are assessed with an antibody blood test and/or a skin prick test.
  • Exposure to indoor humidity, symptoms that are location-specific, and minimal improvement after healing your gut and changing your lifestyle can indicate a mold allergy.
  • The most important part of treating a mold allergy is removing yourself from or eradicating the source of mold. 
  • You can restore your immune function by eating a healthy diet and helping your body detox with probiotics and binders.

An allergy to mold can be easy to miss, as these tiny spore-formers like to stay out of sight. However, there are a few big signs that suggest your chronic fatigue, runny nose, anxiety, or even stomach pain are due to mold. 

If you live or work in a damp building, suffer from symptoms that seem to only pop up in one location (and get better when you go on vacation), and have had minimal response to gut-healing treatments, you may be dealing with a mold allergy. 

Mold allergies are linked to seasonal allergies and asthma, and can be more severe than mold sensitivities. However, testing for a mold allergy is pretty straightforward, and there are plenty of treatment options for both.

As with all allergies, the core of treating an allergy to mold is removing yourself from the source of the mold — or eradicating it. Detoxing your body with the support of probiotics and binders and calming an over-reactive immune system with an anti-inflammatory diet can help you recover from mold exposure. 

Read on for other ways to treat a mold allergy, and how to even identify it in the first place. 

Signs You Have An Allergy to Mold

The effects of mold aren’t limited to respiratory allergies and can show up in surprising ways. This list is by no means exhaustive, but common mold allergy symptoms include [1, 2, 3]:

  • Allergic rhinitis (runny nose)
  • Postnasal drip
  • Sneezing
  • Red eyes, watery eyes, and/or itchy eyes
  • Cough
  • Headaches
  • Memory loss and brain fog
  • Sinus pain
  • Dark circles under the eyes
  • Fatigue
  • Asthma
  • Wheezing, trouble breathing, and/or shortness of breath
  • Chest tightness
  • Nausea, vomiting, and abdominal pain
  • Urticaria (hives)

Not everyone’s symptoms of mold exposure will look exactly the same, and you may not check off every item on the above list. Additionally, it can be difficult to tease out if you are truly dealing with an allergy to mold, as the symptoms often mimic environmental allergies (hay fever) and asthma symptoms. Ironically, new onset seasonal allergies (or asthma) could actually be a sign that you have an allergy to mold [4, 5].

If a mold allergy and environmental allergies can look so similar and often come together, how do you determine what you’re dealing with? Fortunately, there’s a pretty big indicator.

The biggest sign that you may be dealing with mold exposure is that your symptoms disappear when you are in a new environment, but return once you’re back to your normal routine. 

This can present in many different ways, as everyone’s lifestyle is unique. However, here are some common examples of how this shows up in the clinic:

  • You experience the above symptoms only when you’re at work and feel fine at night and/or on the weekends. 
  • You feel significantly better when taking a vacation or leaving your house for a few days.
  • Your symptoms only seem to pop up in specific situations, such as when visiting a family member for the weekend. 

Our own Dr. Scott, who is both a patient and physician at The Ruscio Institute of Functional Medicine, highlights this key point through his own journey with mold. He struggled with various digestive symptoms, joint pain, and brain fog for years, despite fine-tuning his diet and trying other gut-healing therapies (a red flag that something else is at play). 

However, his breakthrough came when he began to notice a pattern — he would start to feel better after leaving his home, but his symptoms worsened upon returning. The suspicion of mold exposure increased after a urine test showed mycotoxins (mold metabolites), and he began treatment for mold toxicity. 

Now, after targeted treatment, Dr. Scott is well on his way to better health and is thankful for this opportunity to better understand and guide his patients. 

Risk Factors For A Mold Allergy

Your history can be another big indicator that you have been exposed to mold and is frequently used, alongside your symptoms, to determine if you have a mold allergy. Mold thrives in damp environments (like basements), and you have an increased risk if you live in a humid climate or have frequent rainy weather. However, indoor dampness is more important, and even in a dry climate, a faulty air conditioning unit can cause mold to grow. 

Unsurprisingly, visible mold growth, smelling mold, and indoor dampness are the biggest risk factors for a mold allergy [4, 5]. What’s interesting is that having early life exposure to these factors can actually increase your risk of developing a mold allergy later in life [6]. 

You’re more likely to experience chronic symptoms from mold in your environment, though those with a serious mold allergy (more on that in a minute) can have short-term symptoms due to ingesting contaminated food. 

However, your environment may not be the only factor at play when it comes to mold allergies, as a 2011 observational study found that certain genetic variants are associated with a mold allergy in asthmatic adults [7]. 

Evaluate Your Risk Level

If you are concerned you could have a mold allergy, it’s important to ask yourself these four questions:

  1. Do you have symptoms consistent with a mold allergy?
  2. Do you live in an environment that is humid, damp, or susceptible to mold?
  3. Have your symptoms persisted despite healing your gut and adjusting your lifestyle?
  4. Are your symptoms associated with a particular place and/or do they get better on vacation?

If you said “yes” to more than one of the above questions, it may be time to see your healthcare provider about potential exposure. If you are currently looking for a doctor, we have several mold-savvy practitioners at our functional medicine clinic

Is It a Mold Allergy or Mold Sensitivity (And Does It Matter)?

In general, allergies are caused when the immune system overreacts to unfamiliar substances. Mold allergies are an allergic reaction that occurs after inhaling mold spores, and affect between 3%-–10% of the population [8, 9]. An allergic immune response increases IgE antibodies, which can be measured in those who have a true mold allergy [3, 6, 10]. 

This inflammatory response can also affect the skin, and you can alternatively do skin testing where an allergist exposes you to small amounts of different molds to see if you show a reaction [3, 6]. 

Unlike mold sensitivity, an allergy to mold can come with a more severe reaction and symptoms, like dizziness, difficulty breathing, nosebleeds, vomiting, or an asthma attack [2]. 

Mold sensitivity isn’t a medically recognized condition, but there is good evidence that it exists. It’s suggested that those who have reactions to mold but do not have elevated IgE antibody levels likely have a mold sensitivity [2, 11]. Additionally, those with mold sensitivity may have more non-specific symptoms (which can present with many different diseases) like fatigue, nausea, memory loss, and anxiety [2].

Unfortunately, testing for a mold sensitivity isn’t quite so straightforward as a mold allergy, as it involves a different type of immune response. Mold-specific IgG antibody levels aren’t a reliable indicator of mold exposure and/or sensitivity [3, 6]. However, when used alongside symptoms and history of potential exposure, measuring urinary mycotoxins can reveal a potential  mold exposure and mold sensitivity. 

Basically, this all boils down to say that a mold allergy and mold sensitivity involve a different type of immune response that comes with different types of mold testing. Those who are sensitive to mold are more likely to present with non-specific symptoms when exposed, but those with a mold allergy can have a more severe reaction [12]. 

However, when it comes to treating mold allergies or allergy sensitivities, many of the treatment options are the same. We will cover our mold-focused treatments in a minute, but first, let’s quickly review what tiny organisms are behind your allergic symptoms.

Which Types of Mold Cause Allergies?

There are thousands of different types of mold, but the most common culprits of mold allergies include [9, 13]:

  • Alternaria
  • Aspergillus
  • Cladosporium
  • Penicillium
  • Stachybotrys chartarum (black mold) 

Alternaria is particularly prevalent in the United States and is associated with severe asthma and respiratory symptoms [13]. Along with Cladosporium, it seems to be one of the most common outdoor mold allergens. 

However, Aspergillus and Penicillium are more likely to blame if you’ve had an indoor mold exposure [13]. Aspergillus is well-known to cause health issues, and it even has its own condition named after it — allergic bronchopulmonary aspergillosis. However, you probably don’t need to worry about developing this severe allergic reaction, unless you have a significant pre-existing lung disease.

How to Treat an Allergy to Mold

As with any allergen, the core of treating mold allergies is removing yourself from the source of exposure or eliminating it [3, 6]. While this is more crucial for those with a mold allergy, it also applies to mold sensitivities. 

Secondly, there are several natural and conventional treatments that can help bind and remove mold from your body and restore a healthy immune response. 

Step 1: Eradicate the Mold

While removing mold from your environment you can also take steps to prevent it from returning. The goal in the first stages of treating mold is to identify the source of the mold and completely remove it from your environment, so we suggest hiring a mold exterminator. This phase is essential, and the complete removal of mold is shown to reduce asthma symptoms [14].

As Dr. Scott stated while recollecting his personal history with mold, if you are constantly exposed during mold treatment, it’s like pushing a boulder uphill. 

If you remove the mold on your own, be sure to remove mold with commercial products, soap and water, or bleach. 

Finding and eliminating mold may involve additional measures, some of which are pretty extensive (another reason we recommend hiring a mold exterminator). The following are some possible remediations when removing mildew:

  • Use exhaust fans in the kitchen, bathroom, and laundry room
  • Fix leaky roofs, windows, gutter, and pipes
  • Thoroughly clean and dry after flooding
  • Ventilate shower, laundry, and cooking areas
  • Remove carpet in basements and bathrooms

Having a proper ventilation system and a well-maintained air conditioner can significantly help reduce the chance of mold [3]. If any of these are poorly fitted to the size of your home or are malfunctioning, it can significantly increase your indoor humidity. 

According to the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) and the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) you should keep your indoor relative humidity below 60% — ideally 50% [12]. A dehumidifier works great to lower the humidity in your home and can significantly decrease your chance of developing mold [3].

Step 2: Stop Inflammation and Detox Your Body

A healthy immune system starts with your gut, and an anti-inflammatory diet is great for lessening an allergic response. Whether you have a mold allergy or mold sensitivity, a temporary elimination diet that removes foods that often provoke an inflammatory response can help. Along with reducing an allergic response, decreasing inflammation in the gut will help balance the gut flora, which directly helps with removing toxic mold metabolites from your body.
Many of our patients experience relief from numerous health conditions on a whole foods-based diet, like the Paleo diet. For more information on how to complete the elimination and reintroduction process step-by-step, check out our article on the health benefits of an elimination diet.

Are Your Seasonal Allergies Actually An Allergy to Mold? - Three%20Phrases%20of%20an%20Elimination%20Diet Landscape L

If you are dealing with mold toxicity (exposure to mold toxins) on top of a mold allergy, healing your gut can be especially beneficial as a healthy microbiome can help bind and remove mycotoxins [15]. Gut bacteria imbalances can interfere with this process, so balancing your gut with a low-inflammatory diet and probiotic supplements can help with the detoxification process. 

While the research is still early, animal studies show that healthy bacteria (in the form of probiotics) may help eliminate mycotoxins from the body [16, 17, 18]. However, there are many studies that support the ability of probiotics to lower intestinal inflammation, heal the lining of the gut and restore the gut flora [19, 20, 21, 22, 23]. All of these effects will help restore proper digestion so your gut can effectively eliminate mold toxins.

As mycotoxins can damage the gut microbiome and increase the number of bad bacteria, it’s essential to get high-quality, high-dose probiotics on board when treating mold exposure [15]. 

If removing inflammatory foods and trying probiotics don’t seem to completely resolve your symptoms, you can try “binders” which help bind and remove mycotoxins from the body. Binders include food-grade bentonite clay, charcoal, and cholestyramine nasal spray (which requires a prescription from your doctor). 

We highly recommend that you work with a provider who is knowledgeable in treating mold when trying mold binders. They can help monitor your mycotoxin levels, along with any treatment side effects.

Step 3: Find An Immunology Expert

If you’ve removed the mold, cleaned up your diet, tried probiotics, and are still experiencing significant symptoms, it may be time to reach out to an immunologist (allergy doctor). 

While there are a few over-the-counter treatments that can help manage allergy symptoms, including antihistamines and nasal sprays [6], an immunologist can help your body decrease its immune response to irritants. 

Immunotherapy is similar to allergy shots and involves exposing someone with an allergy to mold to small amounts of mold. Over time, these treatments can help decrease your immune response to mold [3, 6]. One research review found that immunotherapy can reduce symptoms of asthma and rhinitis to Alternia, previously discussed as one of our most common mold allergens and Cladosporium (in indoor mold) [6].

Say Goodbye to Mold — For Good 

There are many symptoms of an allergy to mold, such as a runny nose, cough, asthma, headaches, fatigue, and mood changes. But the biggest indicators that you have mold are location-specific symptoms, persistent symptoms even after healing your gut, and exposure to a high-risk environment. 

A mold allergy differs from a mold sensitivity as it involves a different type of immune response and has different testing methods. A mold allergy is more likely to have severe symptoms, while a mold sensitivity frequently presents with non-specific (non-respiratory) symptoms. 

Removing mold from your environment, and your body, are crucial for your recovery from mold. An anti-inflammatory diet, probiotics, and binders can help heal the immune response and aid in your detox from mold. If you think you are experiencing health symptoms due to mold exposure and need some help, reach out to the Ruscio Institute for Functional Medicine for a complimentary 15-minute discovery call. 

The Ruscio Institute has developed a range of high-quality formulations to help our patients and audience. If you’re interested in learning more about these products, please click here. Note that there are many other options available, and we encourage you to research which products may be right for you.

➕ References
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