While I was finishing undergrad, I rented a small, two-bedroom home in a sleepy neighborhood of both students and families who all lived in similar houses: ‘40s construction retrofitted with additional rooms, gravel driveways, and weathered wooden decks badly in need of staining.

I liked my quiet street and little house, and I adjusted to its myriad quirks—a few dud outlets, a sticky front door—until the particularly wet spring of that year.

The house had no gutters; in fact, it had no drainage system at all. With the onset of heavy spring showers in already-humid Georgia and without a system in place to direct water away from the roof and walls, I began to notice splotches of dark mold creep along the edges of the living room ceiling.

If you’ve been in a similar situation, you understand the dread that comes with spotting mold in your home. Most people have a natural aversion to mold in anything other than French cheese, and for good reason: mold is ugly, odorous, hard to get rid of, and can cause structural damage if left unaddressed.

Mold can also have negative, sometimes serious effects on your health—often without your knowledge.

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Whether you’re dealing with a known mold problem or you suspect you’re susceptible to mold sickness, keep reading to learn more about this insidious invader and how to keep it out of your home.

What is Mold Sickness?

mold sickness symptoms

You may have seen a local news story on the “toxic black mold” that’s lurking in your basement or otherwise heard that exposure to mold can be dangerous. While the latter is certainly true, the health issues associated with mold are generally misconstrued or misdiagnosed.

“Toxic mold” is a term coined and perpetuated by the media, and according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC), it’s inaccurate.

Certain molds are toxigenic, meaning that while they are not themselves toxic or poisonous, they can produce toxins, specifically mycotoxins. In general, toxigenic molds present the same health hazards as other molds commonly found in homes.

Symptoms of mold sickness

Studies by organizations such as the National Academy of Medicine and the World Health Organization link mold exposure to respiratory illness, lung diseases, and the development of asthma in children. The CDC describes the following symptoms related to mold exposure:

  • Nasal stuffiness
  • Eye irritation
  • Wheezing
  • Skin irritation
  • Fever
  • Shortness of breath

Some medical professionals offer a longer list of mold exposure symptoms, which they attribute to predisposed sensitivity and airborne contaminants, including mold spores, present in water-damaged buildings.

It’s important to note that sensitivity to mold does vary among individuals. Those with mold allergies, chronic lung illness, or hypersensitivity suffer severer versions of these and related symptoms, while others are less affected.

Thankfully, I belong to the second group. During the several months I battled with mold in my little rented house, the only negative reaction I experienced was frustration. My college boyfriend, Cole, was not so lucky.

Cole had crashed at a buddy’s place for a few months in a spare room with mold on the ceilings that neither of them addressed or took very seriously as a health hazard. During that time, Cole, who has no known mold allergies, suffered constant cold-like symptoms: fatigue, sinus congestion, and coughing to the point of coughing up blood.

When he moved into a new apartment, the symptoms stopped. And while I was dealing with my mold problem, he couldn’t visit without getting a headache and an itch in his throat.

So when the issue persisted, I learned as much as I could about household molds and how to get rid of them—for good.

Mold vs. Mildew

mildew in grout lines of bathroom tile

Mildew

Mildew is a powdery surface mold commonly found in bathrooms (in grout lines and on neglected shower curtains), on damp walls, and on outdoor surfaces. Indoors, mildew usually appears as tiny black spots that grow into larger colonies. Outdoors, such as on wooden decks and siding, it’s usually green in color, while mildew on plants often appears in white, yellowish, or brown patches.

It isn’t always easy to distinguish a mildewed surface from a dirty one. To test for mildew, apply a couple drops of bleach to the area. Mildew will lighten after a few minutes, while dirt or grime will remain dark.

The good news? Because it lives on surfaces, mildew is less invasive than other molds and likewise easier to clean.

Mold

The not-so-good news: There are many different types of mold found at home that present a more comprehensive problem. These strains develop roots that penetrate and rot out wood, compromising structural integrity and, in advanced cases, requiring removal and replacement of the mold-infected material.

Mold can appear in a variety of colors, with black, white, gray, brown, and green molds being the most common. They are typically thicker and fuzzier than mildew, but they can also have a slimy or spongey texture.

With enough moisture, mold can grow almost anywhere—even inside walls and underneath carpets, where it can spread undetected for a significant amount of time. A musty odor or mushy drywall can indicate a hidden infestation before surface staining appears.

How to Get Rid of Mold and Mildew

Depending on the severity of the problem, you may be able to effectively eliminate mold on your own.

Cleaning surface mold

Mildew can be wiped or scrubbed from a flat surface using a disinfectant solution. If you do a quick Google search, you will find that many sources recommend combining one part bleach (or another household cleaner) with ten parts water for this purpose.

While a cheap, DIY fix is tempting, this approach can actually make the problem worse if you’re cleaning porous surfaces, such as wood or drywall. What does mold need to grow and spread? That’s right: water. While bleach cannot penetrate porous surfaces to kill embedded roots, water can soak through easily and exacerbate the problem.

Instead, use an EPA-registered mold or mildew disinfectant to clean walls and ceilings. These specially formulated solutions attack the roots to help prevent mold from reappearing.

Read the label carefully. Some products are preventative or stain removers, which are great to use in combination with disinfectants, but aren’t themselves designed to kill mold. For the best results, look for the EPA label along with the terms “fungicide,” “mildewcide,” or “mildewstat,” and follow instructions exactly.

Removing mold infestations

Serious outbreaks necessitate removing affected areas of drywall and carpet altogether. While it is certainly possible to remove mold yourself, the process is both arduous and dangerous because you’re exposing yourself to high levels of airborne spores.

Mold “knows” when it’s being attacked, and it releases large quantities of spores as a stress response. For those sensitive to mold, breathing in these spores can cause the sinus and respiratory complications discussed earlier in this article.

Water damage and mold remediation specialists are experts in this area of work and have all the necessary tools and training to complete the job safely. For extensive infestations, or if you suspect mold exists elsewhere in your home, always call a professional.

Eliminating the water source

Mold commonly occurs in damp crawl spaces, basements with inadequate waterproofing and/or drainage, and in walls or ceilings as a result of leaking water. Because it can’t grow without sufficient moisture, the logical step after removing or cleaning mold from surfaces is cutting off its water supply.

Fixing leaks, keeping attics well ventilated, and installing proper drainage and waterproofing systems are all effective preventative measures when addressing a mold problem. In areas like bathrooms, where exposure to water is unavoidable, increasing ventilation by running a fan or opening a window and cleaning more frequently with mold-retardant products can help keep mold to a minimum.

Addressing mold spores

microscopic-mold-spores

Once you’ve managed to get rid of the visible problem, microscopic mold spores will live on in your carpets, air filters, and any other texturized material—even your clothes.

But this fact isn’t as concerning as it may sound. It’s quite common for a building to contain some amount of mold spores, and eliminating them altogether would be impossible. Only abnormally high quantities of spores pose health hazards, and spores cannot develop into a mold outbreak without moisture.

If you’re concerned about mold spores, many mold remediation companies also offer biocide fumigation treatments, which kill the vast majority of spores that linger in the air and dust inside your home.

That said, fumigants themselves are hazardous substances that should only be handled by a licensed professional. Homeowners and residents with lung or respiratory issues should consult a doctor before fumigating their homes.

In Conclusion

Whether you or your family members are sensitive to exposure, a mold problem should be addressed as thoroughly and quickly as possible.

Why?

Mold can make you sick. Even if you are tolerant of mold exposure’s negative side effects, guests or other members of your household—especially children—may not be.

Mold grows quickly. In my bedroom, the mold spread across the ceiling so rapidly, it was completely covered when the maintenance crew arrived two days later.

Mold is hard to kill. To treat the problem, the crew laid plastic sheets over the furniture and applied mold-retardant paint to the ceiling. In the end, I’d call them out three more times to repaint because the mold kept coming back.

Mold usually indicates a larger issue. In my case, the umbrella problem was the lack of a drainage system. Only after my landlord installed French drains did the mold finally bite the dust.

While it’s possible to correct a minor mold problem yourself, always contact a water damage and mold remediation company for large outbreaks or if your home has suffered significant water intrusion from a leak or flooding.

Your health, your home, and your household deserve it.

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