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Could your sniffling be a mold allergy?
Health Education

Could your sniffling be a mold allergy?

Sniffling and sneezing—along with other unpleasant symptoms—are your body’s way of signaling that it really, really doesn’t like being around a certain substance. If you have a mold allergy, exposure causes your body’s immune system to overreact, producing symptoms like a runny nose and watery, itchy eyes.  If you also have asthma, it might even lead to some wheezing and difficulty breathing.

Unfortunately, there’s a major complicating factor: You may not even know that this common allergen is the culprit. It can lurk, unseen and hidden. The only way you might realize it’s around is when you start using up your box of tissues.

Mold allergy symptoms

Mold allergy symptoms are very similar to the symptoms you might experience from a seasonal allergy—like hay fever (aka allergic rhinitis) or dust mites—including:

  • Runny nose
  • Sneezing
  • Coughing
  • Postnasal drip
  • Nasal congestion
  • Itchy, watery eyes

If you’re experiencing these kinds of symptoms and you don’t know why or because you suspect that you may be allergic to mold, it’s a good idea to see your healthcare provider and find out for sure, says allergist J. Allen Meadows, MD, immediate past president of the American College of Allergy, Asthma and Immunology (ACAAI).

An allergist can run tests to determine if you’re allergic to mold (or other substances), and then you can determine the best treatments, as well as some strategies for reducing your exposure to this particular allergen.

Common triggers 

Not everyone is allergic to mold. However, some people have a genetic predisposition to mold reactions. If you have other allergies, you may be more likely to have an allergy to mold.

But if you don’t have a mold allergy, you might not even realize there’s mold around—unless you can see it or there’s a large amount of mold giving off a strong odor. Consider yourself lucky. If you do have a mold allergy, though, you’ll develop symptoms whenever there is mold in the vicinity—even if you can’t see it.

Indoor mold

Mold grows both indoors and outside. The most common indoor molds are Cladosporium, Penicillium, and Aspergillus fumigatus, according to the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC). Mold might grow in the damp areas of your basement, in your bathroom, or in clothes and shoes stored in your guest room closet. It might grow within walls or flooring where leaks have occurred. Even “a very small exposure causes an exaggerated response,” says Dr. Meadows.

Outdoor mold spores

Meanwhile, mold spores are everywhere outside: in the soil, in plants, in rotting wood, in the hay in a stable or shed. They float through the air, much like pollen does. You may breathe them in when spending time outside. Or you might unknowingly bring them inside, since those airborne spores can attach themselves to your shoes and your clothing.

Mold spores can be found year-round on the West Coast and in the South, but they tend to peak in October in cooler states and in July in the warmer states, according to the American Academy of Allergy Asthma and Immunology (AAAAI).

You’ll want to watch out for the rainy seasons where you live. The symptoms of mold exposure tend to be worse when it’s wetter outside, because the moisture speeds up mold growth, notes Summit Shah, MD, an allergist and immunologist with Premier Allergy & Asthma in Ohio. That might be early spring in many places, but it can vary. 

Certain foods

One more thing to consider if you have a mold allergy: certain foods might be problematic. “Certain patients who are allergic to mold spores do often have problems ingesting foods in the mold family, such as mushrooms,” says Dr. Shah. “Patients should talk to their allergists if symptoms worsen with ingesting mushrooms. If the symptoms include anaphylaxis, which is a life-threatening emergency, they should strictly avoid those foods and speak to their allergist about carrying an Epipen with them.”

Mold allergy and asthma

“If the person also has asthma, they may have an increase in asthma symptoms, like wheezing,” says Susan Besser, MD, a primary care physician at Mercy Personal Physicians at Overlea in Maryland. 

It’s important for anyone with asthma to have an asthma action plan, a written plan that spells out how to address an asthma attack, beginning with the early signs of trouble. If you have allergies, including mold allergies, the plan should include that information and note that exposure to mold may trigger an asthma flare-up.

How to reduce mold exposure

The most important thing you can do to reduce your symptoms is to eliminate your exposure to the mold that’s causing them. This might involve a two-prong strategy of getting rid of the mold inside your home, if that’s the problem, and avoiding mold outside as much as you can.

Indoor mold 

Stay away from moldy places. It may be hard to avoid a trip to a relative’s house, where you know mold may be living in the dusty furniture or curtains. You may have to keep the visit short, or be vigilant about any medications you take to mitigate symptoms. Or perhaps you should invite that person to visit you instead.

Get rid of moldy items. If you recently opened a box of old books with mold on the covers, donate or toss them immediately. The same goes for clothing and shoes that have been stored for a long time. Unless they can be thoroughly cleaned, it may be time to get rid of them. If you’ve got moldy carpet or insulation, you need to tear it out and replace it. And remove any other sources of dampness, too, according to the Asthma and Allergy Foundation of America (AAFA).

Improve ventilation. You may need to improve the air circulation in high-humidity areas of your home like the bathrooms, the laundry room, the basement, and the kitchen. You want to keep the humidity levels as low as you can.

Use a dehumidifier. A dehumidifier can remove some of the mold-causing moisture from the air. You may have to empty it frequently if you live in a high-humidity area. Running the air conditioner can help, too. If you can get the relative humidity in your home down to 30%, “it would make a huge, huge difference,” Dr. Meadows says.

Use a HEPA filter. You might also consider using a high-efficiency particulate air filter, or HEPA filter, in your home. It can trap tiny particles like mold spores before you have a chance to inhale them.

Fix leaks promptly. If you’ve recently had a leaky roof or window, get them fixed as soon as possible. If you wait, the water damage will only get worse.

Dry water-damaged areas promptly. The longer the moisture sits around, the more likely that mold will grow. The Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) recommends thoroughly drying any areas or items that get wet within 24 to 48 hours to prevent mold from growing.

Hire a specialist. It’s tempting to clean up the mold yourself. But if the mold has grown in the ducts, the ceiling tiles, walls, or subflooring of your home, you probably need to hire professionals. “We recommend, usually, when there is indoor mold growth to get a professional mitigation company to come in,” says Dr. Shah.

For outdoor mold

Keep the outside mold outside. “If you’re allergic to an outdoor mold, keep the windows of your house closed,” says Dr. Meadows. You might also be mindful about wearing shoes and other gear that’s been outside into your home. Remove them when you come inside so you don’t track the mold spores further into your living space.

Avoid places where mold tends to grow. Moldy hay isn’t uncommon in stables and barns, so you might want to steer clear of those places if you have a mold allergy. “And keep away from moldy leaves and such,” adds Dr. Meadows.

Monitor the mold count in your area. The AAAAI’s National Allergy Bureau™ (NAB™) tracks the pollen and mold levels across the country. You can sign up for a customized alert that notifies you about the levels in your area. You may need to curtail outdoor activities if allergen levels are going to be high.

Treatment

The best treatment depends, in part, on whether or not you have asthma. “If you have asthma, first make sure your asthma is well controlled,” says Dr. Meadows. “No waking up at night, no coughing.”

If you know you’re going to be spending time in a place where mold exists, talk to your healthcare provider in advance. Your allergist may suggest using preventive medication in anticipation of the exposure, such as an inhaled corticosteroid, like Flovent (fluticasone) or Pulmicort Flex (budesonide), although it might also be another type of medication, depending on the severity of your asthma. But don’t do this on your own. Develop a strategy together, says Dr. Meadows.

But what if you don’t have asthma, just an annoying mold allergy? Consider using an antihistamine or a nasal spray to treat your symptoms. Here are a few possibilities that might work for you:

Mold allergy medicine
Drug name Drug class How it works Get coupon Learn more
Claritin

(loratadine)

Antihistamine Blocks the action of histamine in your body that causes runny noses, itchy eyes, and sneezing Get coupon Learn more
Allegra

(fexofenadine)

Antihistamine Blocks the action of histamine in your body that causes runny noses, itchy eyes, and sneezing Get coupon Learn more
Nasonex (mometasone) Corticosteroid Stops certain cells from producing chemicals that cause inflammation in response to allergens Get coupon Learn more
Flonase

(fluticasone)

Corticosteroid Treats hay fever symptoms like itchy, watery eyes, a runny nose, and sneezing. Get coupon Learn more

 

Some people also find some relief from rinsing their nasal passage with saline, with a saline kit or a neti pot, to remove any allergen that might have worked its way into their nasal passages. Physically removing offending agents always helps to reduce allergic reactions. 

“Treat it like an allergy,” Dr. Besser says. “Nasal rinses to remove the allergen, steroid nasal spray, and oral antihistamines are a good first step. There are some prescription medications that also might help but start with the over-the-counter medications first.”

You might also benefit from immunotherapy–that is, allergy shots. Dr. Meadows notes that receiving this type of treatment on a regular basis over the course of about three years should give you lasting immunity to your allergen. In this case, the allergen is mold. If you can commit to the process, you might never have to worry about stocking up on the nasal spray again—at least, not for your mold allergy.