Mold: The Hidden Allergy Problem
Going outside at this time of year can make kids sneeze or wheeze, but as one mom learned, what's inside your home might actually be causing the symptoms.
A Common Problem
Mold is a fungus that comes in thousands of varieties and grows both outside and inside. In order to thrive. mold needs two things: water and warmth -- and you certainly don't have to endure a hurricane to find it multiplying in your home. "Mold spores are everywhere. They're just waiting to be watered to start growing," says Paul J. Pearce, PhD, assistant professor of pathology and microbiology at Baylor College of Medicine in Houston. Mold can be present indoors during the entire year. And in most of the country, this is the time when outdoor molds start to grow as well. They flourish in damp, shady areas such as piles of leaves, hay, grass, and soil, and they last through late fall. In warmer climates, they can be a year-round problem.
Up to one-third of children are allergic to mold (only pollen allergy is more common). Inhaling spores -- the invisible airborne seeds of mold -- can cause sneezing, a runny nose, itchy eyes, wheezing, and coughing. If one parent has allergies, a child has a 30 to 40 percent chance of inheriting the tendency to develop them; if both parents are allergic, the odds are more than 50 percent. Unfortunately, doctors are finding that mold allergy is more than just hereditary. A study at the University of Cincinnati revealed that babies exposed to high levels of certain types of household molds have an increased chance of developing multiple allergies later in life. Other research has found that children who live in a home with visible mold and a history of water damage have as much as double the rate of asthma -- even if their parents don't suffer from the disease. Asthma and mold are a particularly risky combination. Most kids with asthma are allergic to mold, and they tend to react more severely to molds than they do to other triggers. "Outdoor mold begins growing in the spring and gets worse as the year progresses," says Linda B. Ford, MD, an allergist at The Asthma & Allergy Center in Omaha. "If your child has asthma, it's important to try to avoid places that are most likely to have mold." Areas that are especially mold-prone typically include home vegetable gardens, freshly mowed grass, barns, farms, and buildings closed during the winter.
Over the past two years, after thousands of homes were flooded in the Midwest, doctors warned residents about the danger of indoor mold growth. "When your building has been flooded, it's very difficult to dry it out quickly and completely," explains H. James Wedner, MD, chief of allergy and immunology at Washington University School of Medicine, in St. Louis. The number-one rule is to remove all wet building materials, carpet, and even wood because they can't be salvaged if they've been saturated for longer than two days. "Sheetrock soaks up water far above the flood line; mold can be hidden under wallpaper, carpet, and floorboards, as well as in ceiling tiles, furniture, and clothing," says Dr. Wedner. Contamination can start with just a trickle of water -- even a small leak in your roof or pipes can lead to a major mold problem that can make your family sick. Although mold can grow behind your walls or in your basement where you can't see it, you may see dark patches on surfaces or notice a musty smell.
Jennifer Minus learned how insidious mold can be when her family moved into military housing on the East Coast. Her son, Joseph, then 6, started sniffling soon after the move, and eventually he couldn't breathe out of his nose at all -- even with his allergy medication. "He had trouble sleeping, he'd get winded easily, and he was generally miserable," recalls Minus. She found mold growing on a wooden window frame, so she cleaned it with a bleach solution, but then she heard that neighbors had recently moved out of their house because of mold. She had her home's air quality checked, and the test revealed massive amounts of mold. "It was growing inside the window frames and through the wall," says Minus. The army moved the family to new housing, and Joseph's symptoms improved quickly, even though it was prime allergy season. Unfortunately, though, most families aren't able to escape from their moldy home this easily.
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