An In-Depth Guide to Mold Exposure Symptoms

By: Dr. Michael Lam, MD, MPH; Dr. Justin Lam, ABAAHP, FMNM


In home mold exposure symptomsResearchers estimate up to 50% of illnesses may be connected to indoor air pollution, and a large proportion of this indoor pollution can be traced back to mold. Much of this mold grows in buildings that have been water damaged at some time in the past. Mold that is left to grow in places such as homes and businesses causes mold exposure symptoms in the people living and working there.

Mold grows well in areas where water has intruded on buildings, getting into the ceilings, walls, and insulation. This kind of water intrusion may be due to high humidity, as well as leaks. One of the best place for mold to grow is in cellulose. Cellulose is used in most areas of nearly all buildings, including houses. As long as the moisture remains in these areas, mold will continue to grow. The growth of mold leads to the production of more and more spores and secondary metabolites like mycotoxins.

Spores are the way mold reproduces. The mold itself and the spores are not necessarily hazardous, unless a person is allergic to them. However, mycotoxins on the surface of or within spores can be very dangerous, causing significant mold exposure symptoms.

When you inhale, touch, or ingest mold spores containing mycotoxins, they can lead to very serious illnesses. Toxins of this kind are very potent and can attack every organ of the body. There is some evidence they can survive for many years in areas of the body. They may lead to serious symptoms for a very long time afterward.

Types of Mold and Mycotoxins

There may be anywhere from one and a half to five million species of mold. These include yeast, mold, and mushrooms. All of them are fungi that obtain their nutrients through enzymes that break down decaying organic matter. Some researchers believe the mycotoxins some of these molds produce may be their way of destroying competing species for food sources.

Researchers classify molds into three basic groups depending on the mold exposure symptoms humans experience:

Allergenic mold exposure symptoms usually only are bothersome if you are allergic to them. They seldom produce life-threatening effects. Children seem to be most sensitive to these types of molds. At times, determining what is causing your symptoms can be problematic.

Pathogenic mold exposure symptoms lead to some kind of infection. This can be particularly harmful if you have a compromised immune system already. A type of pneumonia called hypersensitivity pneumonitis can be triggered by this group of molds.

Toxigenic mold exposure symptoms are the dangerous ones that produce mycotoxins. Serious health effects like immunosuppression and even cancer are possible. The mycotoxins grow on the surface of spores for these molds.

Outdoor fungus and mold exposure symptomsThere are several common types of mold that grow in homes.

Cladosporium is an outdoor fungus that can be brought into your home in a number of ways. Inside, it grows on textiles, wood, and any material that is damp and porous. Often, it triggers Mold exposure symptoms such as hay fever and asthma.

Penicillium is very commonly found growing on wallpaper, decaying fabrics, carpet, and fiberglass duct insulation. It’s mold exposure symptoms can cause allergies and asthma. One of the mycotoxins it develops is penicillin.

Alternaria is commonly found in your nose, mouth, and upper respiratory system. It does bring on allergic responses.

Aspergillus is usually found in climates that stay warm and humid. It is commonly found on house dust. It’s mold exposure symptoms can lead to lung infections.

Stachybotrys chartarum, more commonly known as “black mold” is less common, but can be found in your home. This dangerous mold grows on material that has a high cellulose content, like wood, fiberboard, even dust and lint. Once this mold is growing in your home, it can be easily spread through your house by the air handling system that distributes cool and warm air.

Once any of the spores are spread and find a place that is moist, the mold begins to grow. When it grows, the chances of mycotoxins developing increases, and the likelihood of you developing mold exposure symptoms due to exposure increases as well.

There are three primary mycotoxins that can be measured in your urine. Exposure to these mycotoxins can trigger severe symptoms. These mycotoxins are aflatoxin, ochratoxin, and macrocyclic trichothecene. The first two primarily come from the aspergillus mold. Ochratoxin also comes from penicillium. The trichothecene mycotoxin comes from a variety of molds, but the stachybotrys mold is the most common source in homes. This mycotoxin is so deadly that it has been used in chemical warfare agents.

Why Are Mycotoxins So Toxic?

Mycotoxins have a number of negative effects on the human body. Some mycotoxins are more detrimental to your health than heavy metals when concentration is a factor.

Part of the reason for this is that mycotoxins affect more systems in the body than do heavy metals or pesticides. Spreading the toxic effect around your body makes you sicker. This ability to affect so much of the body also has to do with the rapid mutation possible in fungi. This allows them to negotiate around the immune system, while suppressing the immune system at the same time.

Another reason for greater toxicity, especially in the case of inhaled the mold spores, is the lack of a barrier between the olfactory neurons and your brain. This allows the mycotoxins direct access to the brain. The same thing can happen if mold spores containing mycotoxins get in the eyes. This allows serious brain complications to develop if mold exposure symptoms go unaddressed.

Mold exposure symptoms and negative effectsMold infections occur sub-clinically most of the time, making detection very difficult. Laboratory tests are not very sensitive or accurate, and many mold driven illnesses are overlooked. In addition, chronic minute amounts of toxin secreted constantly by mold pathogens lead to reactive metabolite overload. The body is flooded by a sea of toxins that is annoying at best and can be incapacitating at worst.

The effects of mycotoxin toxicity include:

  • Interfering with RNA synthesis and causing DNA damage
  • Altering protein synthesis and function in enzymes
  • Profound oxidative stress
  • Depleting antioxidants
  • Altering cell membrane function and transportation
  • Creating potent mitochondrial toxins
  • Altering apoptosis
  • Suppressing the immune system, leading to recurrent infections

Mold Exposure Symptoms in Humans

People react differently to exposure to mold, leading to many symptoms. Depending on the method of entry into the human body, symptoms of mold exposure can vary greatly.

Mold can enter the body from eating or smoking products with mold on or in them. If you work or live in a building where mold grows, it can come from breathing in mold spores harboring mycotoxins. Mold can also enter the body if you handle something with mold spores on it. When you rub your eyes or touch another part of your body, especially a part with a mucosal membrane, mold spores are transferred to that body part.

Some research suggests mold spores can remain in your nasal cavities for a long time. This leads to misdiagnosis of some sinusitis illnesses. Common remedies for this kind of sinus infection do nothing to rid you of mold spores. In fact, they may even increase the spore population.

Mold also causes allergic reactions. When you’re exposed to mold, it enters your body as a foreign material, prompting it to develop antibodies to fight the invader. These antibodies are what bring on allergic symptoms.

After exposure, your body continues making antibodies that remember these substances. Any re-exposure triggers your body to release histamines to fight the invasion. This brings on the allergy symptoms everybody knows about.

Risk Factors for Mold Allergies

As with most illnesses, there are certain risk factors that play a part in how many symptoms you’ll experience after exposure to mold.

Family history. If you have a history in your family of developing allergic reactions, you’ll be more likely to develop allergies to mold.

Occupational factors. Working in jobs that expose you to mold frequently or on a long-term basis makes it more likely for you to develop allergies to mold exposure.

Humid living conditions. If you live in an area of the country where humidity levels are frequently high, you’re more likely to be sensitive to mold exposure and mold exposure symptoms

Buildings with high moisture levels. Living or working in buildings that are continually damp or have lots of moisture will lead to more mold growth, increased exposure to mold, and a greater likelihood of allergic reactions.

Poorly ventilated houses. Houses with poor ventilation can seal in moisture, leading to mold growth. Bathrooms are really good locations for mold to grow.

Levels of Symptoms

Mold exposure symptoms levels There appear to be three levels of symptoms from exposure to mold. These levels distinguish the severity of symptoms.

Level 1 symptoms are those usually seen in allergic reactions to mold:

  • Watery eyes
  • Sneezing
  • Itchy skin
  • Itchy eyes
  • Headache
  • Skin irritation

Level 2 symptoms are more severe and likely come after an extended period of time living or working in an environment where mold is present. This exposure to mold may have been on an off and on basis. These mold exposure symptoms include:

  • Feeling constantly fatigued
  • Continuing headaches
  • Nausea
  • Nosebleeds
  • Breathing problems
  • Loss of appetite
  • Weight loss
  • Loss of hair
  • Diarrhea
  • Vomiting
  • Short term memory loss
  • Nervous disorders
  • Swollen glands under the arms
  • Asthma attacks
  • Chronic sinus infections
  • Chronic bronchitis
  • Pain in joints and muscles

While there appear to be a lot of symptoms listed, it’s important to keep in mind with the large number of mold varieties, every one of them may bring on a different set of mold exposure symptoms.

Level 3 symptoms are those that come with prolonged exposure to mold and mycotoxins:

  • Long term memory loss
  • Blindness
  • Brain damage
  • Bleeding lungs
  • Reduced exercise capacity
  • Brain fog
  • Chemical sensitivities
  • Food sensitivities
  • Cancer
  • Death

Mold Exposure and Adrenal Fatigue

Mold exposure symptoms are very similar to another condition, Adrenal Fatigue Syndrome (AFS). Some of the more serious symptoms common to both mold exposure and AFS include:

  • Fatigue and weakness
  • Poor memory
  • Concentration problems
  • Appetite increases and decreases
  • Mood swings
  • Bloating
  • Disorientation
  • Vertigo

One significant effect of exposure to the mycotoxins in mold is the suppression of all aspects of the immune system. This is also a factor in AFS.

An inflammatory response is also a common symptom in AFS and mold exposure. With suppressed adrenal function as seen in AFS, inflammation increases in your body. When you’re exposed to mold, inflammation is one of the many mold exposure symptoms.

When the body experiences any kind of stress, it automatically begins fighting its effects. The hypothalamic-pituitary-adrenal (HPA) axis begins the process. This results in the adrenal glands releasing cortisol to fight the effects of stress. The body tries to fight against stress as long as stress is present. In our world of continuing stress, this means a prolonged struggle.

The adrenal glands will continue secreting cortisol as long as they can. However, at some point adrenal fatigue sets in and less and less cortisol is secreted. At this time the major symptoms of AFS become visible.

When you’re exposed to mold, a major symptom is an inflammatory response triggered by the mold. The body then needs to produce more cortisol to fight the inflammation. If the adrenals are already fatigued due to AFS, they are less able to secrete the necessary cortisol to fight inflammation.

If AFS occurs with mold exposure, the problems are doubled. AFS reduces the cortisol your body can produce, and inflammation increases due to mold exposure, which can lead to continuing stress that aggravates AFS symptoms.

Adrenal fatigue and mold exposure symptomsWith both, you are more likely to develop infections. The immune system is depressed by both the mold exposure and AFS. Opportunistic infections can set in, and the risk of pneumonitis from mold exposure increases.

With AFS, the hormone system can be affected negatively by mold exposure as well. Estrogen dominance can become an issue, leading to significant increases in PMS, uterine fibroids, and even breast tumors in women. Cancer is one of the major symptoms of high levels of mold exposure, and chances of developing certain kinds of cancer increases with both conditions.

Illnesses Associated With Mold Exposure

Many common illnesses can be traced back to mold exposure, even if that exposure has been years previous to the first sign of the illness. But many physicians aren’t aware of the possible effects of mold exposure.Symptoms mold exposure may be among the most missed illnesses today.

There are a number of reasons for mold-related illnesses to be dismissed. One is the ambiguity of long lasting symptoms.

Part of the challenge with identifying mold exposure is when the symptoms come and go. When you’re in an environment where mold grows, you experience symptoms. When you’re away, they sometimes go away. This coming and going of symptoms presents an unclear symptom picture to your physician. Unless he/she has some experience in environmental medicine or has learned about mold exposure symptoms, knowing what to do to deal with your symptoms will be extremely difficult.

At times, your physician may consider other possible conditions your symptoms point to, including fibromyalgia, life-threatening breathing conditions, chronic lung or sinus infections, fatigue syndrome, myelin destroying diseases, serious neurological diseases, dementia, autoimmune diseases, and even tumors. Some of these illnesses have been associated with mold exposure. These possible diseases can lead to numerous tests and work-ups to try to narrow down what is going on.

However, it is important to focus on the root of the problem, and not on symptoms alone. If the real issue isn’t identified, serious problems with nearly all systems of your body can result.

Damage to body systems can include:

  • Vascular system – bleeding from your lungs, fragile blood vessels
  • Digestive system – bleeding, diarrhea, vomiting, liver damage
  • Neurological system – depression, headaches, loss of coordination
  • Respiratory system – difficulty breathing, bleeding in your lungs
  • Skin system – rashes, sloughing off of skin, sensitivity to light
  • Urinary system – kidney toxicity
  • Reproductive system – infertility, changes in menses
  • Immune system – suppression of immune responses

Aspergillosis, brought on by one of the more common molds in homes, can lead to whole body infections. Invasive aspergillosis is one of the most serious illnesses that comes from aspergillus. This occurs when the mold gets into the bloodstream and travels throughout the body.

Serious illnesses and mold exposure symptomsPeople with aspergillosis can grow what is called a “fungal ball” in their lungs. This is a ball of fungal fibers called aspergilloma. Sufferers may cough up blood, have difficulty breathing, develop fatigue, and lose weight. If this type of infection becomes really severe, it can spread to the brain, heart, kidneys, or skin.

Many other illnesses prevalent today have been linked to mold exposure. These illnesses include heart problems, GERD, GI problems, learning disabilities, myelin destroying conditions, and cancer. Thyroid problems also may have some link to mold exposure.

Another issue is any time your immune system is negatively affected, as with mold exposure, you are open to numerous illnesses that otherwise would have been stopped by the immune system.

Suppressed Immune System and Chronic Fatigue

One of the general symptoms of mold exposure is suppression of the immune system. When chronic fatigue is a factor, such as that brought on by AFS, the immune system is also placed under a tremendous burden. It’s like a fighter having to fend off opponents coming at him from every direction at the same time.

There are simply too many opportunistic infections from too many sources for the immune system to defend against them all. There is too little energy remaining for the suppressed immune system to fight off these opportunistic infections.

The weaker the immune system becomes, due to more and more aggravating factors, the more ineffective it becomes. This leads to the adrenals becoming more fatigued and depleted, and more difficulty in the metabolism of sugars, proteins, fats, and mineral salts.

Mycotoxins, in addition to adrenal fatigue and suppressed immune functioning, may cause:

  • neurological inflammation in the form of headaches, brain fog, irritability, and insomnia.
  • digestive inflammation that can bring on irritable bowel, nausea, lack of appetite, and sugar cravings.
  • opportunistic co-infections from bacteria or viruses because of a weakened immune system.
  • a dramatic increase in intestinal yeast and candida populations, resulting in leaky gut, irritable bowel, decreased absorption of nutrients, and increased food sensitivity.
  • lessened adrenal functioning leading to lower cortisol levels, further weakening of the immune system, more difficulty metabolizing sugar, and insulin resistance.
  • difficulty with already compromised liver detoxification ability, leading to problems with mineral and nutrient absorption.

Mold Exposure and the NeuroEndoMetabolic Model

When considering exposure to mold and ensuing attempts at correcting the effects of the mycotoxins, a comprehensive approach must be utilized. The NeuroEndoMetabolic (NEM) Stress Response model is the most comprehensive available.

The traditional model of how the body handles stress is incomplete. Even though this model has an understanding of how the hypothalamus, pituitary, and adrenal glands are functionally connected, the way the body handles toxins isn’t fully grasped.

Responses to mold exposure symptomsIn general, the traditional model deals with the body one organ at a time. For example, if someone has symptoms of sinus infection due to inhalation of mold mycotoxins, physicians trained in this model will address only the sinuses. The typical remedies will be ineffective and possibly hazardous.

Focusing too much on individual organs causes practitioners to overlook the interaction of each organ system on the others. It is these vital interactions among systems that keep the body functioning at its best. If one system is out of balance or dysfunctional, its interactions with other systems will be dysfunctional, sending the entire body into a tailspin of dysfunctions.

When the body’s immune system is suppressed by mycotoxins, metabolism must be considered. This involves how your cells provide the energy your body needs to function, how the cells deal with inflammation, and how they work to remove toxins and mold exposure symptoms.

When your metabolism isn’t working right due to AFS, detoxification is impaired. Toxins increase in the body and more stress is placed on it. This leads to a greater demand on the adrenals and the rest of the endocrine system.

Under continuing stress, the immune, metabolism, and endocrine systems begin breaking down and not functioning properly. Exposure to molds and the mycotoxins they produce is a part of this continuing stress.

Methods To Correct Conditions Brought On By Mold Exposure

It is difficult to address the conditions caused by mold exposure. The multiple symptoms of mold exposure, and the many conditions that may result from it, make remediation of these conditions much more difficult. Combine this with the fact that many traditionally trained physicians aren’t fully aware of the multitude of illnesses caused by mold exposure, and the difficulty increases tremendously.

Often, physicians faced with symptoms and conditions related to mold exposure will simply address the symptoms with which they’re familiar.

Nasal Steroid Medications

Many of the symptoms initially presented to physicians may be related to irritation of the sinuses. Traditional remedies for this include nasal steroid inhalers. While these may bring temporary relief because of short-term decrease of inflammation, they also suppress the immune system. This leaves you open to illness and other symptoms of mold exposure.

Infection can actually be encouraged, between a steroid-compromised immune system and immune suppression due to mold exposure. Some steroid medications may actually help infections spread to other parts of the body, when they otherwise would be isolated to only one area. This mechanism increases mycotoxins’ effects on the entire body.

Antibiotic Medications

Many physicians act as though any infection in the sinus is bacterial in origin and recommend antibiotics to deal with mold exposure symptoms. Research suggests as many as 90% of sinus infections may be fungal in nature instead. Antibiotics, which are oriented to bacteria, then set up your gut system for a massive fungal infection. These medications kill not only any harmful bacteria, but also the beneficial bacteria in your gut. This includes those that would ordinarily keep fungi at bay. This allows molds to grow unchecked, leading to increased inflammation and opportunistic infections.

Medications for mold exposure symptomsWhen the first round of antibiotics are ineffective in remedying an infection, physicians often try another, more potent antibiotic. Results will likely be the same, with even more of the beneficial bacteria in the gut killed, increasing the likelihood of sickness.

Antidepressant Medications

This sets up a vicious cycle of feeling ill, taking medications that don’t work, getting frustrated, and becoming depressed. Depression can come due to feeling sick and nothing seeming to help. This situation may lead physicians to suggest antidepressant medications for mold exposure symptoms.

In addition, mycotoxins have an effect on the brain and nervous system and can worsen feelings of depression. Fungal toxins affect the brain and thus the emotions.

Many situations in which you may be exposed to mold and mycotoxins also occur in traumatic conditions. Floods, earthquakes, hurricanes, and tornados often lead to perfect conditions for mold to grow and flourish. All of these traumatic situations may bring on associated depression and anxiety.

When medications don’t seem to alleviate your symptoms, your physician may begin believing it’s all in your head. If your symptoms, including depression and anxiety, are caused by your exposure to mold, antidepressants will not touch them. They won’t remedy your psychological symptoms nor your physical ones.

Antifungal Medications

Potent antifungal medications can have serious side-effects on your liver. Even an antifungal commonly used for toenail fungus carries a warning that it could cause liver failure.

Most antifungal medications are highly toxic because there is a great deal of similarity between your cell membranes and the cell membranes of fungus. When the antifungal medications attack the fungi cell membranes, they attack your cell membranes as well.

Natural Approaches to Remediation of Mold Exposure

Because of the whole-body effects of mold exposure, a comprehensive, natural approach is often the best way to deal with symptoms. This works to address the cause, and not only the symptoms. Nutritional and detoxification interventions must be utilized.

The first and sometimes most effective approach is to stay away from buildings and materials that contain mold spores and mycotoxins. You may want to invest in an air purification system. Many mold spores are airborne and can be inhaled. This can sometimes alleviate mild symptoms of mold exposure. However, simply avoiding contaminated areas may not be sufficient for all people who are ill from mycotoxins.

Symptoms sometimes persist after removal of the mold or moving away from contaminated buildings. Length of exposure, genetic factors, and severity of symptoms may require a longer-term program of nutrition and antioxidant support.

Stop Feeding The Fungi

One approach to dealing with mold exposure symptoms and mycotoxins is to cut off its food supply. Sugars, grains, and simple carbohydrates are foods that mold fungi thrive on. Eliminating foods that contain these nutrients will go a long way toward eliminating your symptoms. This means cutting out milk, bread, pasta, and refined white flour products, among others.

Mold exposure symptoms affected by sugarSugar products especially enable fungi to thrive. Sucrose, lactose, and other sugars must be carved out of your diet. Sugar itself has been shown to suppress your immune system.

Other foods, especially grains, need to be avoided because of the possibility of mold cross-contamination from them. They have a tendency to harbor mold spores, and may introduce more mycotoxins into your system if you ingest them. It may only take a small exposure to these foods to trigger more symptoms because your body has become sensitized to the effects of molds and mycotoxins.

Protect Your Body With Probiotics

One of the best supplements for fighting the symptoms of mold exposure and mycotoxins is a very good probiotic.

When you use antibiotics, they kill off all the microflora in your gut. Since your gut is your best line of defense against mold and mycotoxins, you need it to be as healthy as possible. Probiotics assist your gut in building “good” microflora to keep the “bad” microflora in check. This includes inhibiting mold and mycotoxins.

If your gut isn’t in good shape, perhaps due to the effects of AFS in addition to mold exposure, the fungi and associated mycotoxins can invade the walls of your gut, gaining entrance into your bloodstream and traveling throughout your body, infecting other systems as well.

If this happens, your immune system will go into full alert, fighting against this invasion and leading to increased inflammation. When the organs involved in detoxifying your body are infected, it reduces their ability to cleanse your system of toxic substances. This leads to multisystem infection, which is what usually happens with mold exposure.

This makes it extremely important for you to use a good probiotic to strengthen your gut and begin the process of ridding your body of mycotoxins.

As with most supplements, probiotics carry some possible side effects.

  • Infections. Some evidence exists that probiotics in large doses may cause infections.
  • Gas or bloating. Some people experience these side effects although probiotics usually decrease incidents of this nature.
  • Abdominal pain and diarrhea.
  • Fungal infections. This unusual side effect may occur in people with compromised immune systems.
  • Immune system stimulation. Over-stimulation of the immune system may occur with probiotics.
  • Headaches. These may occur in people just starting on probiotics.

Other Nutritional Approaches

Mycotoxins have an oxidative effect and deplete the body of antioxidants. This makes it important to add powerful antioxidants to your diet. Glutathione is possibly the most effective antioxidant. Not only does it rid the body of free radicals, it also enhances the effects of other antioxidants. This makes it an excellent choice of antioxidants to add to your supplements. Whey protein may be one of the better ways to add glutathione to your diet. High quality whey protein should be cold pressed, denatured, and come from cows that have no additives in their food sources.

Omega-3 fats are also helpful. One of the best sources of these vital fats is krill oil. Some side effects have been noted with Omega-3s. Fast heartbeat and dizziness have been reported, but overall incidence isn’t known. More common side effects include diarrhea, headache, nausea, joint pain, and unusual tiredness or weakness.

Natural approaches to mold exposure symptomsArtichoke leaf extract has been shown through research to be toxic to a lot of fungi, both molds and yeasts.

Research has also shown Vitamin D to prevent mold allergies.

Pregnenolone is often recommended to support adrenals stressed due to exposure to mold and mycotoxins. It is the hormone that is a precursor for many of the other hormones in the body, including cortisol. Pregnenolone is considered generally safe for adult usage, but there are some side effects you should be aware of. It may bring on some effects that are similar to steroids. Overstimulation, insomnia, irritability, anger, anxiety, and negative moods are a few of the side effects. The weaker your body, the bigger the risks. Pregnant and breastfeeding women should not use pregnenolone since little is known of its side effects in this population. Pregnenolone can be converted to estrogen in the body, leading to estrogen dominance in some people.

Final Considerations

Whenever you decide to use nutrition and natural substances to handle symptoms of exposure to mold, be sure to find a qualified practitioner to guide you. Someone who is familiar with natural remedies will be able to suggest appropriate nutrients for you and will help you become aware of any effects that may not be beneficial for you.

Exposure to mold and the mycotoxins they may harbor is becoming almost an epidemic in the U.S. One source reported almost 25% of the buildings in the country to be water damaged and likely to have mold growing in them. Sometimes mold is not evident to general observation. If you have symptoms of mold exposure, be sure to consult your healthcare professional and begin rebalancing your body. The health conditions that can come from this exposure are much too serious to ignore.

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