While a little mildew around your tub or shower is no reason for alarm, if you smell a musty odor or see visible signs of water damage in your home, it may be. Perhaps you don’t see or smell anything, but are experiencing unexplained hay fever symptoms (or, worse).

Even if not everyone in the home is experiencing symptoms, there could be a mold problem. Mold affects everyone differently depending on factors such as – your immune system, allergies, age, the type of mold, and more.

How to differentiate between mold & mildew

Mold and mildew are both fungi that grow on surfaces and thrive in warm, moist environments. The main difference between mold and mildew is in appearance and the surfaces on which they are growing.

  • Mold is often thicker and black, green, red, or blue in color. Often found on foods, walls, and other organic/building materials.
  • Mildew is usually a thin, powdery growth of fungus, gray or white in color. It’s often found in showers, on paper, and on fabrics.
Image courtesy of Chalon Handmade.

The 4 things mold needs to survive

Although there are at least 1,000 species of mold common in the U.S., the four most common species found in homes include Cladosporium, Penicillium, Alternaria, and Aspergillus. Mold overgrowth in your home is a serious issue that must be addressed immediately since mold has the potential to cause health problems and even make a home uninhabitable.

It is essential to fix any and all water leaks right away since mold begins to grow within the first 24-48 hours of a leak. Mold cannot live without water. Having just finished helping a family for the Dr. Oz Show, we discussed Why Water Sources May Cause Mold. In fact, mold requires four basic elements to survive:

  1. Water/Moisture (from leaks, high humidity, condensation)
  2. Food (i.e., organic material like ceiling tile, wood, drywall, paper, etc).
  3. Oxygen
  4. Temperature between 40 and 110 degrees F
Image courtesy of Darren Johnson / iDJ Photography.

Allergic reactions to mold

Mold allergies are common. According to the Allergy and Asthma Foundation of America, approximately 40 million Americans have indoor/outdoor allergies as their primary allergy. An estimated 6%–10% of the general population and 15%–50% of those who are genetically susceptible are sensitized to mold allergens according to the CDC. There are thousands of molds, but only a few dozen cause allergic reactions. Symptoms of a mold allergy might include:

  • Itchy nose, mouth, and lips
  • Asthma attacks in those w/ asthma
  • Rashes
  • Fatigue
  • Headaches
  • Irritation of throat
  • Sneezing
  • Itchy, watery eyes
  • Runny nose
  • Nasal congestion
  • Skin rash (dermatitis)

Mold exposure can irritate the eyes, skin, nose, throat, and lungs in both mold-allergic and non-allergic people. Mold can also trigger asthma symptoms such as wheezing, shortness of breath or chest tightness.

Toxic mold

Some molds are volatile and release compounds directly into the air, known as microbial volatile organic compounds (mVOCs). More dangerous than mVOCs, however, are mycotoxins. More than 200 mycotoxins have been identified from common molds. Toxic molds include Aspergillus versicolor and Stachybotrys chartarum; an extremely toxic “black mold” that produces mycotoxins that can cause serious breathing difficulties, bleeding of the lungs, damage to internal organs, mental impairment, cancer, and even death in some cases. Stachybotrys chartarum is found on wood or cellulose products. Trichothecenes, a mycotoxin, is produced by Stachybotrys chartarum and Aspergillus versicolor. These and readily absorbed by your intestinal lining, airways, and skin.

Mold removal

Dead mold may still cause allergic reactions in some people, so it is not enough to simply kill the mold, it must also be removed.  For details, refer to the EPA’s Guide to Mold. Remember, according to the EPA, you should not use bleach to kill mold (bleach is a respiratory irritant). Rather, you should hire a professional to remediate if the mold problem is over 10 square feet in size. Tip: Don’t use the same company to both test and remediate as this can be a red flag and conflict of interest.

home mold
Image courtesy of aimee rivers.

Mold testing

Prior to spending hundreds, if not thousands, of dollars on professional testing, you can start with a few DIY tests for a fraction of the price. This will let you know if further testing and/or professional help is required. Two recommendations are listed below (you should conduct an air and a surface test for the most accurate results and ideally an outdoor air sample for comparison).

  • SURFACE: Mold Screen Check: This kit checks for 100’s of different types and provides info on the genus level of each mold detected. It includes an AIHA-LAP, LLC Accredited Lab Analysis for molds.
  • AIR: Airborne Mold Test. This kit checks the mold and dust counts.

7 mold prevention tips

Enjoy my tips, How to Avoid Mold Growing in Your Home, as featured on the Dr. Oz show in addition to these below to prevent and keep mold at bay:

  • Use an air purifier with a HEPA filter to capture airborne mold spores (read: How to Choose the Right Air Purifier).
  • Keep humidity between 40-60%; preferably about 35%.
  • Reduce moisture in the bathroom and kitchen by turning on an exhaust fan or opening a window after bathing or cooking.
  • If you reside in a humid climate, use an air conditioner or a dehumidifier to keep the humidity levels low.
  • Fix all leaks immediately and dry any water-damaged areas within 24-48 hours; the sooner, the better.
  • Clean sinks and tubs to keep mold and mildew at bay with a nontoxic solution.
  • Change your HVAC filters regularly (every 3 months according to the EPA). I recommend a high-performance electrostatically charged filter. These fibers act like tiny magnets to attract and capture small particles, removing even small, lung-damaging particles from your home’s air.

Feature image courtesy of Emily May

By Lisa Beres

Lisa Beres is a healthy home authority, Baubiologist, published author, professional speaker and Telly award-winning media personality who teaches busy people how to eliminate toxins from their home with simple, step-by-step solutions to improve their health. With her husband, Ron, she is the co-founder of The Healthy Home Dream Team and the 30-day online program Change Your Home. Change Your Health. She is the author of the children’s book My Body My House and co-author of Just Green It!: Simple Swaps to Save Your Health and the Planet, Learn to Create a Healthy Home! Green Nest Creating Healthy Homes and The 9 to 5 Greened: 10 Steps to a Healthy Office. Lisa’s TV appearances include "The Rachael Ray Show," "Nightly News with Brian Williams," "TODAY," "The Doctors," "Fox & Friends," "Chelsea Lately" and "The Suzanne Somers Show."