A Q & A to Help Patients Make Sense of the Confusing World of Mold-Triggered Illness

by Dr. Susan Tanner, MD

I am often asked questions by readers of these articles about the health issues they are facing because of the impacts of mold and mycotoxins. Even though each inquiry is unique to the asker, there are common threads and different versions of the same questions asked again and again. Thus, I thought it might be interesting and helpful to share some of these more common questions and my answers to them in the hopes that a wider audience may find benefit in their journey to healing.

“How do I know if mold is what is making me sick?”

I thought I would kick this off with a doozy! While there are many variations of this question, my answer does tend to be the same: figuring out if mold is the cause of sickness begins with a careful and thorough patient history. The history should note when the patient began to feel ill, what lead up to their illness (including things like work stress, travel, prior illness, surgery, etc.), and in-depth questioning about their indoor environments at home, work, school, etc. These are the beginning steps, but get the ball rolling.

As a clinician, I find that if I ask enough of the right questions then the patient can often tell me exactly what I need to know.  Just because I am “mold aware”, I do not ever assume that mold is the reason for every illness.  An open mind and thorough review of each patient’s history is of utmost importance. If it ends up that mold is, indeed, suspected as causal, then laboratory evaluation of the environment and of the patient is recommended for further information and confirmation. Some of these labs include mold plate samples of air and nasal passages, professional indoor environmental inspections and testing, and/or certain blood or urine tests to reveal mold-induced toxicity or inflammatory markers.  Obtaining a good history before launching into testing is always necessary, though.

“My home is making me sick. Can I stay and fix it, or do I have to move?”

I always hope that the answer to this question is, “Yes, it can be fixed,” but the truth is that it depends on a number of factors. You need to have a full understanding of what is causing the mold problem before the decision to stay or to leave can be thoughtfully made. For example, mold loves moisture; if any and all water intrusion and moist environments, from a basement or crawlspace to attic, can be addressed and controlled then there is a good chance you can continue to live in your home. But, there also are times when the foundation of the home and its situation on certain properties make it almost impossible to fix the problem without a huge expense or overhaul. In those situations, it is almost always best to leave.  Thankfully, this is not usually the case. Additionally, when the decision is too stressful to make immediately, using safe fogging and cleaning techniques with proven products like the EC3 compounds can temporarily make a space less inflammatory and can help to eliminate mold colonies, but to use these products without addressing the cause of the mold growth in the first place will not help longterm. I have my own mold story and know how difficult being sick and debilitated is. There is nothing I hate more than recommending that a patient leave their home during that time, so I will do that only in the most impossible and dire circumstances.

“I don’t see any black mold in my house, just some mildew. Is it still dangerous?”

First, mildew is mold; it’s a certain type of mold. Let’s be clear about that. It grows when the environment is overly moist.  Mildew can still create mycotoxins in its own reproduction, so for those individuals who are sensitive to the effects of mold, mildew is a problem.

Secondly, black mold (Stachybotrys) is not the only dangerous, illness-causing mold.  Many molds such as aspergillus and penicillium may not be grossly visible, and, if they are, may appear as a grayish or white coating, but the mycotoxins that they produce are just as inflammatory and disease-causing as black mold and must be addressed.  In fact, most mold-literate practitioners know that high indoor mold levels, regardless of the type of mold, are not conducive to optimal health. Additionally, black mold is considered slime mold and is usually found in a constantly wet area.  It may be found on wet walls but also underneath flooring or inside the walls where a slow leak has occurred. Thus, you can have black mold that is hidden and not visually obvious. And, because black mold is a slime mold, the spores that it forms do not become airborne easily and are harder to detect on mold plates or air tests. It is not uncommon for black mold to be missed altogether in standard mold testing.  A thorough investigation of the whole premises is really necessary by a very good mold inspector or industrial hygienist for a home to be cleared as safe. Air tests are a helpful piece of the inspection, but cannot be all that is done to evaluate a home for mold.

“I have fixed the mold in my house, but I am still sick. What do I do now?”

The first thing I ask is if the belongings from the house have been discarded or treated.  Mold spores may still be infested in soft goods, upholstered furniture, mattresses, and, unfortunately, books and papers.  If the contents of your house cannot be adequately cleaned with fogging, sprays, and laundry additives, then they may have to be discarded.  A method called “tap testing” with mold plates can help to reveal if contents are still a problem.

The second thing to ask is if the proper physical support has taken place.  Are sinuses being treated for mold with rinses and antifungals such as CitriDrops Nasal Spray?  Is the diet free of sugar and processed foods? Are the internal organ systems being supported to allow for the proper elimination of mycotoxins from the body? Glutathione and NAC help with liver elimination, and the gastrointestinal system needs immune support and probiotics.  The body must be able to sweat adequately to eliminate toxins.  These are the basics; of course, each patient is an individual and that is where that history must be considered.  The inflammatory nature of mold and mycotoxins can allow recurrent infections or activations of viruses such as Epstein Barr, or bacteria such as Lyme disease.  If this is happening, then there are particular things to do on a case-by-case basis to help the overall immune system strengthen against coexisting medical problems.

“My husband, wife, children (you can fill in the blank here) don’t believe me when I tell them I am sick from mold. How do I convince them?”

There is no doubt that mold and mycotoxin illness can put huge stress on families and relationships.  Part of the reason for this, besides the inconvenience and expense that can be involved in treating it, is that not everyone is affected equally.  There is certainly genetics involved that allow some people to be horribly impacted while others seemingly don’t have any problems at all.  The other consideration has to do with personal medical history.  Certain illnesses, viruses, and medications can weaken parts of the immune and detoxification systems which allow mold and mycotoxins to have a much larger impact on some people than others.  I will maintain that exposure to mycotoxins is not helpful for good health in ANYONE, regardless of whether there are overt symptoms or not.  That said, convincing those who think that this is all in your head can be devastating.  This is where certain testing, whether from blood or urine, as well as environmental evaluations must be done.  Providing doubters with information that helps them to understand the individuality of immune response is also very important.  (I guess if there is a silver lining to the current pandemic, it could be that we all now have a greater understanding of the fact that everyone responds differently to pathogen exposure.) I would also urge you, as badly as you feel, and as desperate to feel better as you may be, that you not let the need to justify your illness to others take over your life.  Yes, you absolutely need support from those around you to treat and do all the steps necessary to get better but becoming obsessed with changing the minds of others will create more trauma and stress on your body.  There is a fine line here and I realize that, but focusing on other things to the extent that you can whenever possible not only helps your mental well-being but allows a bit of normalcy in the household and social relationships too. If people see you improving because you are tackling mold and taking back your health, they will start to get on board.

“I am feeling much better after treating my mold illness. Can I live a ‘normal’ life now?”

In this day and age, I have to ask what a normal life is. If “normal” means living wherever you want and eating whatever you want then I would have to answer, “No.”  The gift of mold illness (if one can go that far to say that!) is that it forces us to live as we all should anyway with clean air, clean water, clean food, and to go another step further, mindfulness.  My hope is that no one will be paranoid about what they eat, drink, or breathe, but that awareness will help to keep people and families well. I do see that patients become increasingly more resilient to minor mold exposures as they continue down their path to wellness but never do they have free license to be in moldy environments without suffering the consequences.  These consequences may be minor at first but can devolve back to full symptoms if ignored.

When I became ill from mold years ago, my symptoms were usually that of feeling off-balance, almost dizzy, when exposed to mold.  And, the brain fog could be instantaneous.  When symptoms hit me, I knew to get out and go irrigate my sinuses ASAP.  As time has gone on, these warnings are not as intense, but I do remain mindful, otherwise I may get more impacted than I realize, and it takes more to pull out of it.  I do feel that I live a normal life now, but I am aware!

I hope that you found this helpful.  If the question-answer format of the newsletter is something you would like to see again, please email your questions to us at newsletter@sinusitiswellness.com and I will put together another group of more.  We can all learn from this!