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Mold (fungi) and Human Illness

The term “mold” commonly refers to many types of fungi. The terms “mold” and “fungi” are often used interchangeably. Mold exposure can be associated with adverse health effects. Exposure to mold can result in infections, hypersensitivity disorders, and toxic or irritant effects. Less clearly established, however, are a variety of symptoms resulting from “indoor mold” exposure, including fatigue, nausea, cognitive changes, and immune dysfunction.

Indoor mold typically results from invasion of outdoor mold sources. Outdoor fungi can gain access to the indoors via open windows and doors or transfer on clothing or pets. Under the right circumstances, an outdoor mold can proliferate indoors. Visible mold growth is not a reliable indicator of contamination. In addition, there are no established standards for safe indoor fungi levels or for levels that impart health risks.

Known Health Effects from Mold Exposure – Most fungi are not harmful to healthy, young adults with a functional immune system. However, mold related infections, hypersensitivity disorders, and toxic or irritant effects might occur under certain circumstances. Individuals with a compromised immune system are at risk for opportunistic fungal infections.  Mold related hypersensitivity reactions, inflammation as an abnormal immune response to an underlying trigger, could be associated with disorders such as allergic rhinitis, asthma, and hypersensitivity pneumonitis. Molds also produce toxins called mycotoxins which if ingested may cause illness.

Controversial Health Effects from Mold Exposure – Inhalation of mycotoxins and fungal debris can occur but is unlikely outside of an occupational setting. Current evidence does not support the contention that mycotoxin related illness occurs by inhalation in a non-occupational setting. Humans are not known to mount immunologic responses to mycotoxins as part of any disease process. Tests for antibodies to mycotoxins have not been scientifically validated. There is no current evidence that supports mycotoxins as a cause of immune suppression or auto-immunity disorders. Additionally, objective testing has been unable to confirm the presence of any mycotoxin related to neurologic dysfunction. Current literature does not support evidence to implicate mycotoxins as a cause of malignancy, liver disease, kidney disease, or hormonal problems.

Assessment of Possible Mold Related Illness – Patients with persistent respiratory or other symptoms should be evaluated by a healthcare provider. If potential exposure to mold is a concern, this should be conveyed at the time of the initial evaluation. If clinically indicated, consultation with an asthma, allergy, or infectious disease specialist for further evaluation and care may be recommended. Testing for fungal sensitivity may assist in confirming if fungal exposure is a contributing factor to some illnesses. Once the diagnosis of a mold related illness is confirmed, additional testing may be appropriate in some settings. The Student Health Center (SHC) can assist patients in this process by addressing their immediate health issues and assisting them in securing an appointment with a specialist when needed. Consultation and follow-up with a specialist is not a covered service of the SHC.

Additional Information – The SHC utilizes only reliable, reputable resources to inform clinical decision-making and for patient education. Patients may request additional information regarding this topic from their SHC provider. Resources for the above information are from UpToDate, an online clinical decision support resource for healthcare providers. Additional information regarding this topic is available from the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention at: https://www.cdc.gov/mold/

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Knoxville, TN 37996-3102
Phone: 865-974-3135

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