One of the root causes of chronic fatigue (and all your other strange symptoms!) could be an infection you don’t even know you have!
The infectious agent in question is mold. Yes, the same stuff you see on your food. Mold is even present in a lot of food products that aren’t rotting. Foods like coffee, corn, grains, and dehydrated fruits often have high levels of mold and their associated toxins (mycotoxins). (1)
But the main source of toxic mold exposure comes from water-damaged buildings (WDB). And they’re far more common than you may think. Studies of residential homes and commercial buildings in the United States suggest that 50% of all building structures have water damage resulting in mold(s). (2, 3)
You could very well be living in a moldy home and not even know it!
Is your home as moldy as week-old bread?
Mold loves warm, damp environments. When you add a slow water leak to an area of your house, mold will thrive. This can occur on the outside or inside of your house. Often, mold growth occurs behind walls where water has the opportunity to collect.
Another common source of mold is in heating, ventilation, and air conditioning units (HVAC). This is even more prevalent in the HVAC systems of commercial buildings. These systems are the perfect place for water to collect and mold to grow.
If you’ve got any sort of water leak and a place for that water to collect, mold will thrive. And with over half of all buildings in the USA having suffered water damage, mold is far from an uncommon experience.
Are your strange symptoms caused by mold exposure?
I’ll get into the nitty-gritty of mold illness and exposure later in the post. For now, know that what makes mold illness so challenging to diagnose is its collection of non-specific and downright weird symptoms. That means the symptoms commonly experienced by mold exposure patients don’t fit a clinical diagnosis. Unless you consider diagnosis like chronic fatigue syndrome or fibromyalgia helpful.
Unfortunately, you won’t have much luck receiving effective treatment for mold illness through conventional healthcare settings. Most doctors still don’t believe mold could cause illness(es).
Below is the cluster of symptoms that are most commonly associated with mold illness: (4)
- Unusual pain(s)
- Ice-pick pain
- Light sensitivity
- Joint pain
- Memory issues
- Challenges focusing or concentrating
- Mood swings
- Appetite swings
- Sweats (especially at night)
- Static shocks
- Red eyes
- Blurred vision
- Sinus issues
- Shortness of breath (SOB)
- Abdominal pain
- Skin sensitivity
- Challenged to regulate body temperature
- Excessive thirst
- Increased urination
- Metallic taste in the mouth
On their own, the above symptoms seem random and confusing. They’re bound to stump any doctor not trained in mold illness. But when many of the above symptoms are occurring simultaneously, the clinical picture starts to look more and more like mold exposure/illness.
If you’ve got a number of the above symptoms, it’s time to start looking to mold exposure as a potential cause!
How does mold exposure cause so many symptoms?
At this time, I want to differentiate mold exposure from another condition called Chronic Inflammatory Response Syndrome (CIRS). I’ll do a deep dive into the differences between mold allergies and CIRS in next week’s post. For now, know that the most important difference between a mold allergy and CIRS is exposure.
Mold allergies will occur while you’re exposed to mold. Common symptoms of a mold allergy are: (5)
- Post nasal drip
- Watery eyes
- Dry, scaly skin
After you remove yourself from the moldy environment, you’ll no longer experience mold allergy symptoms. Chronic Inflammatory Response Syndrome is a very different condition. That laundry list of symptoms in the above section, those are the symptoms of Chronic Inflammatory Response Syndrome. It’s through this inflammatory condition that mold is able to cause so many symptoms.
To develop Chronic Inflammatory Response Syndrome (CIRS) you need to have the right genes. Approximately 25% of the population have the HLA-DR gene. (6) Think of this portion of the population as the canaries in the coal mine – they’re the first to experience symptoms if a building has mold in it! When these genes turn on your body’s immune system is shifted into high gear.
Here’s an example to help better illustrate what I mean:
Meet Jane. Jane does not have the mold genes (HLA-DR). If she’s living in a water-damaged building, she’ll experience mold allergy symptoms. Her immune system identifies the mold’s mycotoxins (antigen) and creates specific antibodies to rid her body of the mold. So long as Jane removes the source of the mold, her mold allergy symptoms will go away. Her immune system is effectively able to eliminate molds.
Meet Tina. Tina has the mold genes (HLA-DR). Similarly, she too was living in a water-damaged building. It caused mold allergy symptoms so she elected to move. Her new house does not have any water damage. But Tina’s symptoms continue to intensify. They get worse each day.
Tina’s immune system functions very differently than Jane’s. Tina’s body is unable to flush out the mold toxins. This triggers her immune system to respond to these mold toxins over and over. Tina’s immune system is never able to turn off because her body is unable to rid itself of the mold toxins. Always having some mold toxins circulating in her system causes activation of her immune system 24/7. Tina is unable to protect herself against new mold exposures. And she suffers daily from a crazy array of symptoms. All of which are caused internally by her immune system constantly fighting the mold.
It is this chronic activation of the immune system that causes so many different symptoms.
How is mold exposure/illness diagnosed?
Again, I need to stress that there’s a world of difference between a mold allergy and Chronic Inflammatory Response Syndrome. The common thread they share is mold. Outside of that, the disease processes are very different.
A mold allergy will typically be diagnosed by an allergist. To confirm the diagnosis, an allergist will do what is called an IgE allergy test. (7) You probably know this as the skin prick test. Different types of mold will be tested on your skin. If there’s a noticeable reaction to one of the test spots, mold allergy is diagnosed.
Those of you with mold allergies will need to be mindful of mold exposure. That means avoiding damp piles of leaves in the autumn months. And avoiding any areas of damp or wet materials in the spring. During these months, it may be wise to wear a mask when venturing outdoors.
Diagnosing CIRS is a complex, multi-step process. Next week, I’ll go into great detail about the differences between CIRS and mold allergies. For now, know that they are two separate conditions that are caused by the same thing – mold exposure.
How to know if your home or office is making you sick
Since so many buildings are water-damaged, before purchasing or renting a new home be sure to have the house thoroughly tested for molds and their mycotoxins. At the time of this writing, there are two tests you can use that effectively measure the amount of mold in your home:
- The ERMI test
- The HERTSMI 2 test
ERMI stands for Environmental Relative Moldiness Index. The ERMI test uses a specific technique called mold-specific quantitative PCR testing (MSQPCR). Before the ERMI test, evaluating a home for mold consisted of taking small samples of dust in your home and trying to grow mold in a petri dish. (8) If the petri dish didn’t grow mold, your home was thought to be mold-free. The ERMI test looks for mold’s DNA. This type of testing is significantly more sensitive than growing mold in a petri dish. The ERMI test is sensitive enough to test for 36 different species of mold.
This test was originally developed by comparing moldy homes to non-moldy homes. The results of an ERMI test are divided into four quartiles: (9)
- First Quartile
- The ERMI value for this quartile is -10 up to -4.
- This environment has low levels of mold.
- If you have a mold allergy or CIRS, you want your house to fall in this category and nowhere else.
- Second quartile
- The ERMI value for this quartile is -4 up to 0.
- This environment has low to medium levels of mold.
- Third quartile
- The ERMI value for this quartile is from 0 – 5.
- This environment has medium to high levels of mold.
- Fourth quartile
- The ERMI value for this quartile is from 5 – 20. And sometimes even >20.
- This environment has high to very high levels of mold.
HERTSMI 2 test
HERTSMI stands for Health Effects Roster of Type-Specific Formers of Mycotoxins and Inflammagens. HERTSMI-2 was designed for assessing the risk of known mold-patients for illness from re-exposure. (10) Unlike the ERMI test that measures the DNA of 36 different mold species, the HERTSMI-2 test checks for what is known as the big 5 mold species. These five species are the ones most commonly associated with mold illness, allergy, and/or CIRS.
If your HERTSMI-2 test is <10, the home/building is safe to re-occupy. Any value above 10 suggests that the building will continue to trigger symptoms in mold-susceptible individuals. If you have those mold-genes, you need to avoid these buildings at all times.
The ERMI test tells you how moldy your house is compared to the average home. The HERTSMI-2 test tells you whether (or not) it is safe for you to live in your home. Ideally, you would run both of these tests to get a complete picture of mold levels in your home and their potential effect(s) on your health.
What can be done to limit mold exposure?
Exposure to mold is what will recreate your symptoms. Therefore, it is the best practice to avoid exposure as much as possible. Often, those who are most sensitive to molds and their mycotoxins will have a sixth sense in detecting musty smells. They’ll be able to pick out water-damaged buildings as soon as they enter. Don’t brush your nose’s experience (or your strange symptoms) off as being paranoid, it’s better to err on the side of caution. If you think a building or house is moldy, leave.
Common areas of mold exposure and growth in a home/building include:
- HVAC systems
- Attics and/or crawl spaces
- Window sills
If you live in an area with high levels of humidity, consider investing in a dehumidifier. You’ll want to keep the humidity of your home less than 35%. Any humidity levels greater than 50% will most certainly result in mold growth. You’ll also want to pay close attention to any leaky faucets/pipes/drains etc. Mold can grow with only a small amount of moisture. Fix leaky pipes immediately.
In some cases, the purchase of an air purifier may be warranted. You can attach specific filters to your HVAC system that are certified to protect against asthma and allergen triggers. Other devices can be used specifically in the room(s) you spend the most time in. Before purchase, make note that the air purifier up for consideration can successfully filter out molds.
Water-damaged and/or moldy buildings aside, you’ll need to be mindful of outdoor areas mold likes to grow. Mold exposure can happen both indoors and outdoors. Molds like temperate weather and a source of water – these are the two key ingredients to mold growth. Mold issues are caused by moisture issues. Moisture always comes first.
To best avoid outdoor mold exposure, you’ll want to be mindful of moist areas. This could include outdoor areas like swamps/sloughs and any area with rotting vegetation. Rotting vegetation after the snowmelt is a common source of mold. If you’re an avid gardener, consider wearing a mask while working in the dirt. Soil/dirt is a perfect home for molds.
Avoiding exposure is the first step to overcoming mold allergy and/or chronic inflammatory response syndrome (CIRS). If you find that avoiding mold exposure is not improving your symptoms, it’s time to dig deeper. Check back for all my future writings on mold being published through June and July.
Now, I want to hear from you!
What sort of strange symptoms has mold exposure caused in your body?
How did you successfully treat them?
Leave your answers in the comments section below!
Also published on Medium.