Allergy expert has advice for flood victims

June 19, 2008

St. Louis, June 19, 2008 -- As if the emotional and financial impact of flood damage isn't bad enough, floodwaters can also bring health problems. H. James Wedner, M.D., professor of medicine and chief of the Division of Allergy and Immunology at Washington University School of Medicine in St. Louis, says after the water recedes, damp homes and businesses are fertile grounds for mold growth, which can cause allergic reactions and asthmatic symptoms in sensitive people.

"Mold loves water," Wedner says. "When your building is flooded, it's very difficult to dry it out quickly and completely, and that allows mold to grow. Walls made of Sheetrock soak up water far above the floodline, and mold can be hidden under wallpaper, carpet and floorboards and in ceiling tiles, furniture and clothing."

Wedner is a Washington University allergy and asthma specialist at Barnes-Jewish Hospital. He has conducted research investigating the molds and other allergens present in homes following the 1993 flood in the Midwestern United States.

Molds (and mildew, a type of mold) are fungi, which reproduce by releasing spores. Inhaling the spores causes allergic reactions in some people. Symptoms of mold allergy include itchy, watery eyes; itchy, runny nose; headaches above and below the eyes; itchy ears and changes in hearing; itchy throat and palate; difficulty breathing; coughing; and shortness of breath. Mold spores may also trigger asthmatic reactions in asthma sufferers.

If a doctor confirms that health symptoms stem from a reaction to mold, medical treatments are effective: those can be pharmacotherapy -- which may include antihistamines or steroids, given intranasally or orally -- or if necessary, immunotherapy, often called allergy shots, which allow your immune system to build up a tolerance to the allergen. But Wedner emphasizes that the source of the reaction, the mold itself, also has to be removed.

For those who have to deal with a flooded building, Wedner has the following recommendations: 1) dry it out quickly -- mold will grow almost immediately in wet conditions; 2) cool it down -- mold likes warmth as well as humidity; 3) remove wet materials -- wet Sheetrock can't be repaired and must be taken out; 4) clean anything that has been wet -- that includes clothing, which should be dry cleaned; 5) throw away anything that can't be thoroughly cleaned -- that favorite couch might have to go; 6) hire a professional to clean affected areas of the building with appropriate materials -- often a solution of 10 percent bleach is used.

In addition to allergic reactions, mold has other negative effects. The organisms release substances, volatile organic compounds or VOCs, that people can smell even at low levels. The musty odor is disagreeable and can make a person react at an emotional level. "If you feel sick when you smell mold, make sure what's making you sick is the mold and not the emotions associated with the smell," Wedner says.

Mold can also damage a building structurally. It releases enzymes to breakdown cellulose, a major component of wood.

Wedner indicates that although molds release natural toxins, called mycotoxins, these don't cause problems to people who live in moldy houses because the toxins don't diffuse into the air. The only way to be exposed to them is to swallow them.

Recently, a mold called Stachybotrys, a greenish-black, slimy mold found on wood or paper that has been wet for several days, has gotten a lot of attention. Some claim Stachybotrys is the cause of sick building syndrome, in which people occupying a building have a variety of symptoms such as headaches; eye, nose and throat irritation; dizziness; fatigue and breathing problems. But Wedner says Stachybotrys itself has little to no affect on health. "Stachybotrys is a mold that needs a lot of water," he says. "So it's a sign that there has been a lot of water in the building. But it's not toxic, and people generally aren't allergic to it."

In addition to Stachybotrys, flooded homes will also foster molds that require less water, such as Aspergillus and Penicillium -- bread and cheese molds and common components of mildew. These molds and others like them are the source of allergic reactions in sensitive individuals.

Wedner is currently studying the role of fungi and fungal allergens in asthma, with particular emphasis on the role of fungi in the inner-city setting. The data demonstrates the marked prevalence of fungi in many homes in the St. Louis area and points out the importance of fungal allergens in asthma and allergic rhinitis. With Anupma Dixit, Ph.D., assistant professor of community health in the Division of Environmental and Occupational Health at Saint Louis University School of Public Health, Wedner is also continuing to study the health effects of home flooding.
-end-
Washington University School of Medicine's 2,100 employed and volunteer faculty physicians also are the medical staff of Barnes-Jewish and St. Louis Children's hospitals. The School of Medicine is one of the leading medical research, teaching and patient care institutions in the nation, currently ranked third in the nation by U.S. News & World Report. Through its affiliations with Barnes-Jewish and St. Louis Children's hospitals, the School of Medicine is linked to BJC HealthCare.

Washington University in St. Louis

Related Asthma Articles from Brightsurf:

Breastfeeding and risks of allergies and asthma
In an Acta Paediatrica study, exclusive breastfeeding for the first 3 months was linked with a lower risk of respiratory allergies and asthma when children reached 6 years of age.

Researchers make asthma breakthrough
Researchers from Trinity College Dublin have made a breakthrough that may eventually lead to improved therapeutic options for people living with asthma.

Physics vs. asthma
A research team from the MIPT Center for Molecular Mechanisms of Aging and Age-Related Diseases has collaborated with colleagues from the U.S., Canada, France, and Germany to determine the spatial structure of the CysLT1 receptor.

New knowledge on the development of asthma
Researchers at Karolinska Institutet in Sweden have studied which genes are expressed in overactive immune cells in mice with asthma-like inflammation of the airways.

Eating fish may help prevent asthma
A scientist from James Cook University in Australia says an innovative study has revealed new evidence that eating fish can help prevent asthma.

Academic performance of urban children with asthma worse than peers without asthma
A new study published in Annals of Allergy, Asthma and Immunology shows urban children with poorly controlled asthma, particularly those who are ethnic minorities, also suffer academically.

Asthma Controller Step Down Yardstick -- treatment guidance for when asthma improves
The focus for asthma treatment is often stepping up treatment, but clinicians need to know how to step down therapy when symptoms improve.

Asthma management tools improve asthma control and reduce hospital visits
A set of comprehensive asthma management tools helps decrease asthma-related visits to the emergency department, urgent care or hospital and improves patients' asthma control.

Asthma linked to infertility but not among women taking regular asthma preventers
Women with asthma who only use short-acting asthma relievers take longer to become pregnant than other women, according to research published in the European Respiratory Journal.

What are the best ways to diagnose and manage asthma?
A team of experts from The University of Texas Medical Branch at Galveston examined the current information available from many different sources on diagnosing and managing mild to moderate asthma in adults and summarized them.

Read More: Asthma News and Asthma Current Events
Brightsurf.com is a participant in the Amazon Services LLC Associates Program, an affiliate advertising program designed to provide a means for sites to earn advertising fees by advertising and linking to Amazon.com.