Mold Allergies on the Rise Due To Climate Change
Warm spells in the winter and bigger storms are contributing to mold growth, experts say
In the winter of 2015, Leonard Bielory,
MD, saw a 10 to 15 percent rise in number of his patients with mold allergies — that is, allergies to tiny fungi whose spores float through
the air. He attributed the allergies to unseasonable spells of warm weather similar
to the mold-friendly pools of water that were ushered in by Hurricane Irene
when it hit the northeast several years ago.
Major storms — except ones like Hurricane Sandy that occur in extremely cold weather — are “clearly associated with the highest levels of mold counts,” says Bielory, the principal investigator for an Environmental Protection Agency grant on climate change and allergies. “I’ve had a lot of patients coming in complaining of the normal symptoms of mold allergies,” he says, such as sneezing, nasal congestion, a runny nose and watery, itching eyes.
Bielory is a board-certified specialist in allergy and immunology with the Rutgers University Center for Environmental Prediction — Department of Environmental Sciences in New Brunswick, New Jersey, and Department of Medicine at Robert Wood Johnson University Hospital. As part of his federally funded research, he has led multiple studies on the role of climate change and allergic airway disease, or breathing problems caused by allergies.
Among other discoveries, his team’s research has found pollen seasons are getting longer and overlapping — something Bielory has warned “may increase the propensity to develop serious respiratory problems such as asthma and bronchitis and increasing eye and nasal allergies.”
Seasonal mold allergies also may be increasing as the weather changes. “It’s not unusual to see a spike in mold allergy symptoms [around the holidays] because people are taking old, moldy decorations out of storage,” Bielory says. “But the increase I’m seeing is in addition to the spike related to holiday decorating.”
Robert Wood, MD, director of pediatric allergy and immunology at the Johns Hopkins University School of Medicine in Baltimore, observed a similar pattern. “It does seem that even more patients with mold allergies are suffering this year with the warm, damp fall we have had,” he says.
“In the mid-Atlantic area where I practice, it is common to see allergies to outdoor molds well into December,” says Wood, who is also a professor of pediatrics and international health at the university. “The problem really does not get better until the ground is truly frozen — a couple of frosts do not make much difference if it gets warm a day or two later.”
There’s little doubt that allergies in general are on the rise, Bielory says. In federal health agency data he analyzed for a study slated to be published in the Annals of Allergy and Immunology, he found that skin sensitivity to allergens has risen two to three times over the last 25 years. In the same period, he found ocular symptoms — or allergy symptoms affecting the eyes — have increased threefold, with those patients also experiencing a fivefold increase in asthma.
What you can do
Bielory recommends that people with mold allergies (and other allergies) see an allergist as soon as possible. Depending on the symptoms of his patients with mold allergies, Bielory finds targeting the therapy to treatment with topical agents such as specific anti-allergy eye drops for the eyes, nasal steroids or antihistamines for nasal relief and inhaled bronchodilators and steroids for those with allergic asthma brings good relief.
But if you suffer from mold allergies, you also can take steps to lessen your symptoms. For example, don’t expose yourself to more mold spores by raking up leaves and mulch in damp weather, Bielory says.
And rather than keeping the windows cracked open during mold season, Bielory says, use an air filtration system if possible — with one caveat. “If the ducts haven’t been cleaned and are full of mold, that will just blow the mold spores through the house,” he says.
The American Academy of Allergy, Asthma and Immunology also recommends the following precautions if you have a mold allergy:
- Stay inside on days when mold counts are high. Sign up for the National Allergy Bureau’s email alert for mold and pollen counts in your area. In the New York metropolitan area, you can check a more local count at www.NYNJPollen.com.
- Take a shower after coming indoors. This will wash out mold spores in your hair to keep them from bothering you during the night.
- Get rid of house mold by fixing leaking faucets and pipes and other sources of mold spores, especially in your kitchen and bathroom.
- Be sure your indoor humidity level stays below 60 percent.
- Remove basement carpeting and replace it with linoleum or concrete flooring that won’t retain moisture.
- Clean mold off walls using a water and vinegar solution (described by cleaning agencies as a 50-50 solution).