Those musty smells in your basement could point to a hidden culprit behind your chronic health problems: mold.
Mold is a fungus found both outdoors and indoors. When certain types grow inside your home or workplace, you may develop mold-related illness.
The symptoms of mold-induced toxicity are often vague — like fatigue, memory problems, gut issues, and muscle aches. So, it’s easy to attribute them to other causes. On top of that, you don’t always know when you’re exposed to toxic mold. (1)
Due to these factors, mold illness often goes unrecognized. But mold can be a barrier to overcoming complex, chronic health issues. If mold is a culprit for you, it’s crucial to identify and address it. (2)
Keep reading for essential information on mold toxicity. Find out how mold causes illness, common symptoms, and effective solutions.
What Is Mold Toxicity?
You’re likely familiar with mold allergies. But you may wonder how they differ from mold toxicity, also called chronic mold illness. In short, poisons produced by mold can cause illness that extends beyond common mold allergies.
Mold allergy symptoms tend to be limited to your respiratory tract, eyes, and skin — such as a runny nose and itchy eyes. Allergies happen when your immune system overreacts to mold spores. Those are dormant forms of the fungi. They’re lightweight and easily float through the air. (1)
In contrast, mold illness results from mold growing indoors and producing toxins. These can trigger varied and widespread symptoms in your body.
The buildings that harbor mold toxins are water-damaged buildings. This damage can result from any water intrusion — such as from flooding, melting snow, or leaky pipes. Everyday activities like showering without good ventilation are risks, too. Warm, humid environments also increase mold growth risk. (2)
Toxic mold growth could happen in any type of building. The most problematic ones are those where you spend a lot of time. That includes homes, workplaces, and schools.
Studies suggest that up to 50% of buildings in North America and Europe may have water damage. So, it’s better to suspect a building has a mold growth problem rather than assume it doesn’t. (3, 4)
What Types of Mold Cause Problems?
You’ve likely heard of “black mold” or Stachybotrys chartarum, which sometimes makes news headlines. It is greenish-black in color and well-known to contribute to mold-induced toxicity. (1, 5)
But black mold is far from the only mold that can harm your health. And Stachybotrys chartarum is not the only mold that can appear black.
Examples of other types of mold often found in toxic indoor environments include: (6)
Several of these molds have many different species or subtypes. Some of these are more problematic than others.
For example, Aspergillus niger, Chaetomium globosum, and Wallemia sebi are species that produce toxins. Elevated levels of these molds in your home could harm your health. (7)
Toxins Molds Produce
The two main types of toxins that molds produce are mycotoxins and microbial volatile organic compounds (mVOCs).
Mycotoxins hitch a ride on mold spores or fragments of mold so they can travel through the air. In contrast, mVOCs easily travel through the air on their own, as they are gases. (6, 8)
You take in these mold toxins by breathing, touching, or swallowing them. Plus, mold may form colonies inside you and produce mycotoxins. (8, 9)
Here’s a closer look at these mold toxins.
Mycotoxins are poisonous chemicals produced by mold. They help mold defend its territory from other microbes. But mycotoxins can be very harmful to you — even in low concentrations. (10, 11)
In fact, scientists say that mycotoxins are more harmful than pesticides. It’s also thought that some countries have attempted to use concentrated doses of mycotoxins in biological warfare. (11, 12)
Some common mycotoxins and ways they may impact your health include: (4, 6, 13)
Aflatoxins: These are produced by Aspergillus flavus and some penicillium species, among others. Aflatoxins are linked with an increased risk of liver health issues.
Ochratoxin A: These mycotoxins can suppress your immune system. They can also damage your nerves and impair brain function. Some of this could be due to the oxidative stress — also known as free radical damage — that it triggers.
Trichothecenes: These are produced by black mold (stachybotrys), as well as some other molds. They can interfere with your cells’ ability to make proteins your body needs. They can also impair your immunity, trigger oxidative stress, and damage nerves.
There are hundreds of different mycotoxins produced by molds. Their modes of toxicity vary. In addition to the effects listed above, they can also harm your mitochondria, kidneys, and lungs. (4, 6, 14)
Remember the musty odor you associate with mold? The mVOCs cause those. In contrast, mycotoxins are generally odorless. (13)
Not only do mVOCs smell bad, but some are also toxic. Part of their toxicity stems from their production of damaging free radicals. (13, 15, 16)
Still, don’t be fooled into thinking that a building doesn’t have a mold exposure problem if you don’t smell anything musty. Toxic mold may be lurking even without a noticeable odor. (6)
How Do You Know If Mold Is Making You Sick?
The symptoms of mold toxicity vary from person to person. Practitioners have observed that people living or working in the same water-damaged building may have different symptoms. And, some people may not be noticeably affected by the mold.
Some factors that may affect your susceptibility to mold include your toxin load, health status, and length of exposure. Genetics can also make a difference. (4, 6)
Based on certain genes (called HLA-DR), 24% of people are more susceptible to mold toxicity. If you have these genetics, your immune system doesn’t readily tag mold toxins and get rid of them. They may build up and make you sick. (17)
Still, this doesn’t mean the rest of the population can tolerate excessive toxic mold exposure. A severe mold problem can also impact healthy people. But only sensitive people with certain genetics may be affected by smaller amounts of mycotoxins.
So, how do you know if this pesky fungus is a culprit of your health symptoms? What are symptoms of mold toxicity?
Signs of mold toxicity
There’s no “clear-cut” list of signs and symptoms that specifically point to mold illness. You may not even recall or be aware you’ve been exposed to mold. But one possible clue is a sudden, unexplainable downturn in your health.
This can lead to a series of doctor visits. You may be given a diagnosis of chronic fatigue syndrome (CFS), fibromyalgia, or irritable bowel syndrome. But this is overlooking the root cause.
For example, in a study of people with CFS, about 90% had spent significant time in a water-damaged building. And, 93% of the people had at least one type of mycotoxin in their urine. In contrast, healthy people had no detectable urine mycotoxins.
The researchers theorized that mitochondrial damage from mold toxicity was causing fatigue in the CFS group. Aflatoxins, ochratoxin A, and trichothecenes all can cause mitochondrial damage. That can lead to reduced energy production. (9)
Mold can also trigger inflammation. One study found that people working in damp buildings produced anywhere from 2 to 1,000 times more inflammatory messengers. (4, 18)
Brain scans of people with mold illness suggest inflammation can lead to structural brain changes and nervous system dysfunction. That may contribute to hypersensitivity to foods, chemicals, and other items that didn't previously bother you. This is part of chronic inflammatory response syndrome, described next. (19)
Chronic inflammatory response syndrome
An ongoing inflammatory response to mold or other biotoxins can lead to chronic inflammatory response syndrome (CIRS). It’s also referred to as biotoxin illness. In this condition, inflammation affects multiple systems of your body.
Chronic exposure to a water-damaged building is the most common trigger of CIRS. Chronic Lyme disease is another cause. Some people have both. That’s a double whammy to your system. (20)
The following signs and symptoms are often found in CIRS due to mold-induced toxicity: (4, 6, 21, 22)
Brain function: Brain fog, memory loss, trouble finding words, difficulty concentrating, problems taking in new information
Digestive system: Metallic taste in mouth, nausea, vomiting, bloating, abdominal pain, diarrhea, leaky gut, food sensitivities
Eyes: Blurred vision, eye irritation, itchy eyes, sensitivity to bright light
- Energy: Excessive fatigue, thyroid dysfunction
Immune system: Poor immunity, autoimmune conditions, over-reactivity to foods and chemicals, flu-like symptoms
Mental state: Anxiety, depression, irritability, mood swings
Muscles and skeleton: Muscle pain, joint pain, morning stiffness
Nervous system: Headaches, “ice-pick-like” pain, static shocks, dizziness, poor balance and coordination, seizure-like events, tremors, numbness, tingling, skin sensitivity to light touch, temperature regulation problems
Respiratory system: Cough, sore throat, runny nose, sneezing, chronic sinus congestion, new-onset or worsening asthma, shortness of breath, chest tightness
Scent sensitivity: Unpleasant symptoms upon exposure to fragrances, chemicals, and other odors (multiple chemical sensitivity)
Skin: Rashes, dryness, irritation
Sleep: Insomnia, frequent waking during sleep, night sweats
Urinary system: Increased urination, urgency, incontinence
Weight: Appetite swings, weight gain or weight-loss resistance
Many of these symptoms could also be due to reasons other than mold toxicity and CIRS. That’s why mold illness is often overlooked or misdiagnosed. The specific effects depend on your body’s unique vulnerabilities. (4, 6)
Diagnosis of Mold Toxicity
The conventional medical community is slow to acknowledge that chronic mold-induced illness is common. However, many functional and foundational medicine practitioners have expertise in mold toxicity and CIRS.
A common and simple test for mold toxicity is a urine mycotoxin test. Excreting an elevated level of mycotoxins is a sign of mold illness. Still, if your body is holding onto these toxins, your level may be falsely low. (6, 9, 23)
Some functional medicine doctors also check specific immune system and inflammatory markers via blood tests. Examples are C4a, TGF Beta-1, and MMP-9. Elevated levels of these markers don’t prove you have mold illness, but they contribute to the evidence. (17)
Urine mycotoxin and inflammatory markers are best considered in the context of other signs and symptoms of mold illness. These include the following five areas: (24)
History of mold exposure: Do you recall spending significant time in a water-damaged building (regardless if you had symptoms at the time)? Or, did symptoms start when you moved into a different home/apartment or workplace?
Continual infections: Do you have recurrent infections, such as sinusitis or tonsillitis? Or, do you seem to have a weak immune system? These can be early signs of mold illness.
Sick-building syndrome: Do you feel worse when you enter certain buildings, such as your home, office, or school? Do you feel better when you spend a few days away from these buildings?
Chemical sensitivity: Do you have symptoms — such as nausea, headache, or cough — when exposed to various chemicals? Examples include perfumes, detergents, cleaning products, tobacco smoke, printer ink, paints, varnishes, hair products, street dust, and exhaust fumes.
Odor sensitivity: Have you developed a hypersensitivity to smells, particularly mold? For example, you may smell mold on other people’s clothes or develop a keen ability to smell mold in buildings.
The more of these criteria you meet, the more likely it is you have mold-related toxicity. And if you meet all five criteria, it’s more likely your mold illness is advanced and longstanding.
How to Treat Mold Toxicity in the Body
Is mold toxicity reversible? Yes, but to recover from mold illness, you need to support your body’s natural detoxification and drainage systems. It’s also beneficial to support your immune system, thyroid gland, mitochondria, and oxygen status.
Here are some top strategies to help with your mold cleanse.
Bind mold toxins
If you have mold illness, your body needs help getting rid of mycotoxins. Sequestering agents are commonly used for this. They bind mycotoxins in your gut so you can excrete them. (6)
Some mold doctors use a drug called cholestyramine to bind mycotoxins. But, it can damage your mitochondria. That’s bad news. Your mitochondria support your immune function and provide cellular energy. You need all that support to fight your mold-related illness. (25, 26)
An excellent alternative for mold toxins are binders. They tightly bind toxins to help remove them from your body via your stools. Remember, mold and mycotoxins can affect all organ systems, not just your intestines. (27)
Support your energy, oxygen, and thyroid
Mycotoxins can wreak havoc with your mitochondria. Dysfunctional mitochondria result in less cellular energy. And that decreases your ability to fight mold illness. Support your mitochondria to restore mitochondrial function. (9, 28)
Mold can also squelch your oxygen levels. Your mitochondria need oxygen to generate energy efficiently, so supporting your mitochondria will help. (29)
Additionally, mold exposure can hamper thyroid gland function. Supporting it may also be helpful.
Support your liver
The liver is your main detox organ. But processing a big load of mycotoxins may cause oxidative damage to your liver cells. (30, 31)
It's crucial to support your liver to:
- Provide antioxidant protection
- Reduce inflammation
- Increase mitochondrial function
- Enhance liver function and bile flow
Bile flow is critical to efficient detox. Your liver processes toxins from your blood and deposits them into bile. You excrete some of this toxin-laden bile via your stools.
Glutathione — a powerful antioxidant your body can make — also supports your liver. But, mold toxicity may deplete your glutathione. This leaves your liver cells vulnerable to damage. (6)
Your liver helps get mycotoxins out of your blood and into your bile. The next step is excreting the toxin-laden bile via your stools.
Make sure that your bowels are moving two or three times a day when you’re detoxing. This helps prevent mold toxins from getting backed up and reabsorbed into your body.
Natural herbs can help keep you regular and avoid constipation, support drainage and detox, and keep your lymphatic system draining to get rid of mycotoxins.
Sweat it out
Another way to get rid of mold toxins is via sweating. You can promote this in a far-infrared sauna or with regular physical activity.
For example, ochratoxins have been found in human sweat. More studies are needed to determine what other mycotoxins are expelled this way. (6, 32)
Regardless, you’ll reduce your overall toxin burden when you sweat. Toxic chemicals and heavy metals have also been found in sweat. Lowering your toxin levels from all sources supports your recovery from mold illness. (6)
Sweating sounds simple, but take it slow. Gradually increase the length of your “sweat session.” If you release toxins too fast, you may end up feeling miserable. Remember to keep up your water intake, too.
Clear out other pathogens
Mold illness can inhibit your immune system. Then, chronic infections — such as Lyme disease — may flare. And parasites may move in.
On the flip side, parasites and other infections can weaken your immune system. That makes you more vulnerable to mold toxicity.
Either way, kicking out unwanted critters helps reduce the strain on your immune system.
Moreover, mold spores may “hide” inside parasites. And, some parasitic worms can block your bile ducts, interfering with toxin drainage. This means you may not be able to fully recover from mold illness until you give parasites the boot. (33, 34)
In short, there are many strategies to help you overcome mold toxicity.
Still, you’ll be fighting an uphill battle if you continue to live or work in a moldy building. That can make you sensitive to health measures and other get-well strategies. So, don’t overlook this “elephant in the room.”
Is Your Home Mold Toxic?
Mold loves moisture. Flooding poses a significant risk for mold growth. Landscaping that slopes toward a building instead of away from it encourages water intrusion. (35)
Something as common as a leaky roof, faucet, or dishwasher also invites mold growth. Damp basements and window condensation can also be a haven for mold.
But, how do you know for sure if you have a mold problem?
Often, you can see or smell mold — but not always. You may also see areas that have visible water damage. This is a red flag for possible mold growth.
If you suspect you have a mold problem, you can start with a few simple tests yourself. Certified mold inspectors are also available but vary in quality. Here’s a closer look at these options:
Moisture meter: You can buy a moisture meter at a hardware store. Place its probe against a surface — such as a wall or woodwork — to see if it has an elevated moisture level. The acceptable moisture level varies with the material you’re testing.
Tape samples: If you see something that looks like mold, you can do a tape sample. Per the specific lab’s instructions, you press clear tape over the suspicious area and send it for analysis. This tells you what kind of mold it is and how dense the growth is.
Mold plates: You set out specially-prepared Petri dishes in various rooms to catch mold spores. You also collect a sample outside for comparison. Send them to a lab for analysis. A drawback of this test method is that some toxic molds don’t commonly settle on mold plates.
Dust samples: A quality dust sample test is the Environmental Relative Mold Index (ERMI). You vacuum or wipe up dust with a special cloth, then send it to a lab. Using DNA analysis, this tells you the types of mold and density. This is more accurate than tape and mold plate samples. It also may be a more accurate test for mold than indoor air sampling used by professional inspectors. (36)
Professional inspection: The tools and quality of professional inspectors vary. They commonly use indoor air sampling. However, that’s more helpful when combined with ERMI testing. Certified mold inspectors with training from the Building Biology Institute have a holistic approach.
Regardless of how you identify a mold problem, getting rid of it is essential for your health.
What to Do If Your Home Is Mold-Infested
First, you need to identify the source of water intrusion and fix it. A leaky roof or pipe will only create more issues after mold remediation.
Fixing an extensive mold problem is best left to professionals. When you disturb-mold infested materials, the spores and toxins spread like dandelion seeds in the wind. Attempting to tackle it yourself could make a bad problem much worse. (6)
When looking for a professional mold remediator, some of the questions you should ask are: (37)
Are you certified in mold remediation? Examples of major certifying groups are the American Council for Accredited Certification (ACAC) and the Institute of Inspection, Cleaning, and Restoration Certification (IICRC).
How do you document your work? This should include photos of damaged areas. The company should also provide an itemized cost estimate before starting.
How do you contain mold-contaminated areas? This generally includes using thick plastic sheeting to seal off the moldy area. Remediators also use indoor air scrubbers with high-efficiency particulate air (HEPA) filters. These should be vented to the outdoors.
How do you clean your equipment? Besides air scrubbers, remediators also use HEPA vacuums. Ask what measures they take to avoid contaminating your house with their equipment. Do they change HEPA filters between jobs and sanitize their equipment?
How do you dispose of moldy material? The moldy debris should be double-bagged before removing it from the building.
Remediating the structure of your house is one thing. Soft goods like books, pillows, and curtains are another matter. Remediators may be able to restore some of them. Depending on the degree of mold damage and your degree of sensitivity, you may need to get rid of some items. (6)
If you’re renting an apartment, it may be easier to move out of the moldy building. Just be careful not to take mold-contaminated items with you.
Overcoming Mold Toxicity
Chronic mold illness can leave you feeling stuck in a super-sensitive mode and uncertain about how to get better. But many individuals have beat mold toxicity. So can you.
First, you need to stop any water damage and minimize your exposure to mold. That includes addressing mold problems in your home or workplace. This often requires professional remediation.
Once you address the source of mold, you can focus on detoxifying your body.
Binders can help get rid of mold toxins in your body as well as provide additional support. Using natural aid to support your oxygen level and the thyroid gland is helpful as well.
Have you spent significant time in a water-damaged building? Could mold toxicity be part of your chronic health issues?