When a ‘Whiff’ of Mold Can Cause Severe Symptoms And Panic

By Cesar Collado

Chronic sinusitis and toxic mold affected patients suffer disturbing neurological symptoms, inflammatory responses, and mood disorders.  These long-term disease symptoms complicate diagnosis and treatment for physicians and lead to confusion and frustration for both physicians and patients. Thus, fungal sinusitis patients are dealing with a myriad of symptoms, both systemic and neurological, making their suffering much more debilitating than simply a “sinus infection.”

I would like to address patients with chronic sinusitis or mold sensitivity who have achieved relief, and have a handle on the cause of their symptoms, but at times, out of nowhere, feel panic and a fight-or-flight response whenever they encounter a moldy environment. Many of these patients describe this experience as, while feeling well, they enter a building and suddenly have symptoms such as “intense sinus pain, burning eyes, and an emotional panic response.” They feel like they “have to get out of the building” immediately.  Does this sound like you or a loved one?

This article was inspired by a mold patient and her physician’s concern over her having possible PTSD from the severe sickness and hospitalizations she endured as a result of her mold exposure.  During a separate discussion with her physician (a Mold Specialist), he described the commonality of his PTSD concern as it relates to mold patients.

PTSD Defined

Post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD) is an anxiety disorder that can develop after exposure to a terrifying event or ordeal in which grave physical harm occurred or was threatened. Traumatic events that are commonly known to trigger PTSD most commonly include violence, abuse, natural or human-caused disasters, accidents, and/or military combat. PTSD can be extremely disabling and tragic to individuals and their loved ones.

Some psychiatrists now recognize that severely and chronically ill patients, such as mold or mycotoxin poisoned patients, who deal with financial stress, must leave their homes, moved from place to place, all while having to be taken care of,  fit the same criteria as listed on the PTSD DSM IV diagnosis. 

In past decades, toxic exposure was rare with little data to determine epidemiology or common symptoms or causes. In recent years, there have been several natural and man-made disasters that have created large populations of victims seeking treatment for environmental illness.  Several hurricanes, the Gulf War, 9/11, and the BP oil spill are examples.  In the past, PTSD was reserved for veterans of war, violent crimes, and tragedies; however, these large populations concentrated in local geographies are providing the data required to do proper research.

Patients with PTSD repeatedly re-experience the ordeal in the form of flashback episodes, memories, nightmares and frightening thoughts when reminded of the trauma. People with PTSD also experience emotional numbness and sleep disturbances, depression, anxiety, and irritability or outbursts of anger. Feelings of intense guilt are also common.

PTSD and Mold 

If, in fact, PTSD can be caused by severe environmental illness, mold poses

Proximity to Brain

a particularly troubling challenge.  In the article, “Unexplained Neurological Symptoms Can Be Caused by Mold,”

Olfactory Nerves

I describe the complex and very sensitive olfactory nerve system and proximity to the brain that provides immediate access to the blood system and cerebral spinal fluid (blood brain barrier).

Since mold exists everywhere and mold contamination often can be sensed by smell, an unconscious reaction to mold in our sinuses is certainly probable. Humans are capable of detecting certain substances in dilutions of less than one part in several billion parts of air.

Can a Whiff of mold cause Severe Symptoms or Panic?

The answer is yes and it is not uncommon.  The reason behind this phenomena can be explained by understanding the Brain’s Limbic System.

The Limbic System Explored

The human brain is the most complex and least understood of all organs. The limbic system is a complex set of sections in the mid brain that includes the hypothalamus, hippocampus, amygdala, and the cingulate cortex.  It has been described as the “feeling and reacting area of the brain.” It is responsible for formations of memory and is constantly determining our level of safety.  It also assigns emotional significance to all that we see, hear, feel, and taste. The limbic system is responsible for our social and emotional intelligence, anxiety, and is closely integrated with our immune system, endocrine system, and autonomic nervous system. 

The limbic system is also responsible for stress reactions sometimes called the “Fight or Flight” response.  Our bodies are designed to trigger these stress reactions when we are scared or alarmed.  There are numerous types of stress that affect all of our bodily functions.  Our bodies are designed to react to stress; however, they are NOT equipped for constant stress.   

Stress response system.

Stress is the body’s unconscious answer to potential threats or danger.  The Amygdala draws on implicit emotions to the threat. It signals the hippocampus, the structures of explicit memory that link our unconscious limbic system with our conscious cortex. A stress response can occur immediately; not necessarily to a particular event, but to the meaning or perceived meaning it assigns to the event.  Cortisol, the stress hormone, is released and can derail our functioning cortex.  This is why feelings can be triggered at times when we don’t know exactly why they are there.  For example, loud noises can trigger PTSD for a war veteran, certain smells can trigger panic and anxiety from a personal trauma, or immediate braking while driving can trigger experiences from a serious car accident. Traumatic memories can appear out of the blue, disassociated with current events.

I describe how the brain’s “fight or flight” response can be triggered by our olfactory senses in our noses, alarming our body’s stress reactions and causing physical anxiety, fear, and other emotional responses to a perceived threat.

This happens prior to the hippocampus being triggered. Explicit memories that differ from the actual situation than can be drawn to a conscious conclusion. Thus, a very minor or major exposure to mold in the air can trigger an emotional and physical stress reaction that draws from previous trauma experienced from environmental illness suffering without the patient truly understanding what is happening or why.

Anxiety and flashbacks can occur when triggered by a similar, less traumatic event.  In these cases, the “thinking brain” cannot register that the danger is over or in the past and that the current danger is inescapable, temporary and everything is fine. When the communication from the amygdala (“fight or flight”) and the hippocampus (the thinking brain) is disrupted, a continuous loop between the two can make recovery from severe mold exposure very complex. Sometimes it feels impossible for the patient to put the illness behind them.


Limbic System Recovery

PTSD research has demonstrated the effectiveness of cognitive-behavioral therapy, group therapy, and exposure therapy, in which the patient gradually and repeatedly relives the traumatic experience under controlled conditions to help him or her work through the trauma. A study of 12,000 school children who lived through a hurricane in Hawaii found that those who got counseling early on were doing much better 2 years later than those who did not. Patients can seek professional help from those trained to treat these challenges with therapy.

In addition, a relatively new field has recently emerged to address similar illnesses such as Multiple Chemical Sensitivity, Fibromyalgia, Chronic Lyme Disease, Food Sensitivities, Anxiety Disorders, Chronic Pain, Postural Orthostatic Tachycardia Syndrome and many other conditions.

Limbic System Retraining

These programs involve a curriculum and mental exercises to re-establish a normal limbic system response and breaking the faulty communication loop between the feeling and the thinking brain.  These programs require time and hard work; but, there are numerous success stories documented in research involving these programs. Two developed systems are:

(Note: this is not an endorsement of these programs nor do I have any first-hand experience with these programs.)

Like treatment for PTSD, the reward or benefit for patients capitalizing on Limbic System Retraining programs is significant.  The cost of these programs is minimal ( compared to Health Care Costs.)  They do require practice and work.  For both programs, patients have several options that cost in the low hundreds of dollars:

  • Patients can purchase a DVD training program for self-teaching
  • There are multi-day seminars that can be attended at a greater expense
  • There are books to educate and become familiar with the concepts
  • There is also coaching available and an online community to draw experience from.

Regardless, severe patients with PTSD symptoms when exposed to mold should research the limbic system and limbic system retraining and/or seek help from mental health professionals who have an understanding of the complex brain functions and PTSD.  The benefit of avoiding these panic attacks is priceless.  Dr. Dennis has commented numerous times on the benefits of retraining your mind to process environmental inputs from mold sources. It is definitely worth trying as the suffering of chronic sinusitis and mold illness makes normal functioning and living very challenging.  Patient vigilance and some extra efforts is a requirement for the environmentally ill to pursue an accurate diagnosis and the right treatment in today’s medical environment.

Comments or Questions are welcome!





About the Author:

Cesar Collado is a former pharmaceutical R&D executive, venture capitalist, and seasoned strategy consultant in biotechnology and technology industries in general. He currently works as an advisor to multiple technology start-ups and advises several companies that provide healthcare and other services for environmental illness. Read More


  1. Laura July 3, 2018 at 5:50 pm - Reply

    I don’t know if I have a mold allergy…but here’s what happens to me EVERY day. I go out for a couple of hours, and I have the increasing sensation that my breathing in my nose (not my lungs) is being impaired. I feel as though my nostrils are lined with something that will not blow out (like mucus) and that the air passage is narrowing. It is always connected to one of my earways as well, often feeling like a clicking in my left or right ear depending upon which sinus is “filling”. To find relief, I have to go home and lie down and relax to get a sense of clearing again. I don’t know if it’s getting out of the allergic-pollen or whatever environment (I can be indoors also) that causes it, but its real and it DOES cause panic. It happened yesterday in high winds, and poor air quality, I had to come home, lie down, calm down and then I can breathe easily through my nose again. I ordered some drops to use to clean my nasal passage or rid them of mold if that is the issue. Any other suggestions? The anxiety it produces takes over and everything else takes a backseat to me finding relief…sometimes cutting a fun day with my kids short. And that, makes me feel sorrow and guilt!

    • Cesar Collado July 6, 2018 at 2:00 am - Reply

      Thank you for this! I have talked with Dr Dennis and other physicians. It is a form of PTSD. Like PTSD, you have to deal with it. The Limbic system retraining really does work. It isn’t very expensive and you can do it from home. You sort of train your thinking mind to register the whiff and warn you prior to the fight or flight response occurs which triggers your adrenal and stress hormones that trigger the panic. I strongly suggest you at least look into it. This is the only program that I understand works and it makes sense. Dynamic Neural Retraining System developed by Anne Hopper https://retrainingthebrain.com/history/

      Keep me informed if you do try it!


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