by Harissios Vliagoftis, MD
Molds are ubiquitous organisms found in both outdoor and indoor environments. Molds belong to the fungal family along with other organisms such as mildews, mushrooms, rusts, smuts, truffles, and yeast. Molds are generally beneficial in the outside environment, but overgrowth can cause various problems to humans that vary from allergies, to immune and toxic reactions.
The most common health effect of molds in humans is allergic rhinitis, a condition characterized by runny or stuffy nose, sneezing and itching of the nose. Positive skin tests to certain molds may indicate that they are the cause of these symptoms. Effective medications are available for allergic rhinitis; these are mostly nasal corticosteroid sprays and antihistamines. In Edmonton, molds are common in early spring as soon as snow melts. We call it snow mold, and it is a mixture of a variety of molds including alternaria and cladosporium species. The same molds can also cause asthma exacerbations in patients with allergic asthma.
It is likely that exposure to damp indoor environments with high mold levels can induce nasal and throat symptoms, wheeze and/or cough and increased symptoms in people who suffer from asthma. However, there is no sufficient evidence to indicate that these environments lead to the development of asthma or emphysema or development of respiratory symptoms in normal individuals. Unfortunately, there are no reliable laboratory tests to positively identify molds as the cause for any health problems. Any positive test indicates previous exposure to the mold, but there is no way to tell how recent this exposure has been and if the mold is associated with any current problems.
One kind of mold that has generated a lot of concern over the last few years has been black molds, or stachybotrys species. These molds release toxic products that can cause severe problems if inhaled in high doses. There are no reliable tests to evaluate exposure of individuals to toxins of black mold. Presence of antibodies against these molds indicates that the individual came in contact at some point in the past and does not correlate with presence of disease. The only reliable test at this time is a good clinical history taken by a physician.
Unfortunately, a number of alternative practitioners promote ideas that are untested and not based on credible literature and may be more harmful than helpful. If you feel that you have symptoms because of exposure to moldy environments talk to your family physician. If he/she cannot answer all your questions, ask for a referral to an allergist or if you are suspecting your work environment, a referral to an occupational medicine doctor.