After water damage in your home, your first concern may not be your health—but perhaps it should be. Respiratory issues are among the most common health problems after a hurricane or flooding. They can be triggered by mold that develops from even small amounts of moisture, such as leaks, dampness in floors, or other water-related issues inside your home.
Who’s at risk?
Researchers have long known that excess moisture promotes mold that can have significant effects on breathing and lung health, but most studies in this area have focused on children or in adults with asthma or other lung conditions. A Swedish study published in Clinical & Experimental Allergy in 2017, however, associated dampness in the home with respiratory tract symptoms (those affecting the nasal passages, sinuses, throat, and lungs) in otherwise healthy adults.
In the study, dampness—defined as water damage, floor dampness, or visible molds—was found to have a significant association with chronic rhinosinusitis, a condition characterized by chronic inflammation of the sinuses and development of nasal polyps, which are small, painless growths that form in the mucous lining of the nose or sinuses.
Chronic rhinosinusitis lasts at least 12 weeks despite treatment. Symptoms are nasal congestion, facial pain or pressure, nasal mucus that drips from the nose or down the back of the throat, and a decreased sense of smell.
Interestingly, researchers found that the link between indoor dampness and chronic rhinosinusitis was just as strong as the link between smoking and chronic rhinosinusitis. Worse, the combination of dampness and smoking was associated with an even higher risk of breathing symptoms, including wheezing, nighttime coughing, and chronic bronchitis—and people in the study who lived in damp environmentswere more likely to smoke than others.
The study’s findings support an earlier report from the National Academies of Science, which linked exposure to damp indoor environments not only with breathing problems in people with asthma, but also with upper respiratory tract symptoms, cough, and wheezing in otherwise healthy people of all ages.
Symptoms to watch for
The health risks of household dampness can range from increased risk of breathing problems to mold-related allergic reactions, depending on both the severity of moisture and existing health issues. While anyone can be affected by dampness, those at highest risk include people with asthma and breathingconditions and those with other chronic health problems. Following a natural disaster, seasonal allergysufferers may also find that their symptoms are more severe or occur earlier than usual owingto both indoor moisture and an overabundance of pollen in the outdoor environment.
If you’re in a damp or water-damaged environment, be alert for these symptoms:
- Irritated eyes
- Shortness of breath
- Skin irritation
- Sinus pain or congestion
- Stuffy nose
If excess moisture leads to mold growth in your home, it’s possible to develop a mold infection in your lungs, especially if you have a chronic lung disease or a compromised immune system.
A type of fungus, mold comes in many varieties and exists on different surfaces. Here are some of the colors, textures, and smells that may indicate household mold.
Mold begins to grow in as little as 24 to 48 hours after spores are exposed to moisture, and it’s not always easy to spot. Spores can lurk inside walls and even heating, ventilation, and air conditioning systems and appliances that have insulation.
Treating moisture-related symptoms
Your doctor can assess the cause of your symptoms and provide medications to help alleviate them, such as nasal or inhaled corticosteroids. To find lasting relief, you must remove the source of moisture and existing dampness and any mold. Keep indoor humidity levels no higher than 50 percent by using airconditioning or a dehumidifier to prevent excess dampness and mold development. Be sure thatshower stalls and cooking areas are properly ventilated.
Avoid installing carpet in bathrooms or basements, and remove carpets and upholstery that have been wet. Remove any visible mold growth from hard surfaces using soap and water, a bleach solution, or products designed to kill mold.
You may need a licensed contractor to remove excessive mold growth or hidden mold from the environment. A good rule of thumb: If the moldy area is less than about 10 square feet, you can probably handle it on your own. For a larger area, seek help from an experiencedprofessional.
This article first appeared in the UC Berkeley 2019 Lung Disorders White Paper.
Also see 20 Indoor Air Pollution Tips.
Published April 30, 2019