An allergy, or hypersensitivity reaction, occurs when the body's immune system overreacts to a substance that is normally harmless (allergen), such as mold, pollen, animal dander or dust mites.
The white blood cells of an allergic individual produce an antibody called immunoglobulin E (IgE), which attaches to the allergen. This triggers the release of histamine and other inflammatory chemicals that cause allergic symptoms, such as runny nose, watery eyes and hives.
Molds are parasitic, microscopic fungi that have spores that float in the air like pollen. While there are thousands of different molds, only a few dozen species cause allergic reactions in sensitive people. Fungi known by scientific names including Alternaria, Cladosporium (Hormodendrum), Aspergillus, Penicillium, Helmin thosporium, Epicoccum, Fusarium, Mucor, Rhizopus and Aureobasidium (Pullularia) are the most common molds that cause allergic reactions. An allergic reaction occurs after a sensitive person inhales mold spores that are airborne.
While mold can grow almost anywhere, it is usually found in warm, damp areas, such as the basement or bathroom, as well as outside in the grass, in leaf piles, hay or mulch. Each species of mold thrives in a particular type of environment. Therefore, most mold allergies are not seasonal because different molds grow in different types of weather, and some can live indoors, outdoors or both.
Molds can reproduce sexually or asexually. During asexual reproduction, one parent produces genetically identical offspring. During sexual reproduction, genetic material from two parents is combined to produce offspring. Although molds grow on dead organic matter, they can only be seen with the naked eye when mold colonies (groups of many molds) are present.
In early 1970, an increased number of mold-related health issues were reported. Researchers attribute the increase to energy-saving insulation that was used in homes in response to the national energy crisis. The energy-saving insulation unexpectedly caused a dramatic increase in humidity inside those buildings, which led to excessive mold growth.
The exact incidence of mold allergies worldwide remains unknown. However, mold exposure in schoolchildren has become a major health concern of parents in recent years. Moisture-damaged repairs of buildings and close living quarters in inner cities appear to have contributed to an increase in respiratory allergy symptoms related to mold in children. Researchers estimate that 80% of young children who live in the southern United States and have indoor allergies are allergic to mold spores and/or dust mites.
Allergy treatments depend on the severity of symptoms. Minimizing exposure to mold by properly ventilating damp areas in the home, regularly changing air conditioning and furnace filters and closing windows at night, may help prevent or reduce allergy symptoms. Commonly used allergy medications include antihistamines, nasal sprays, decongestants, leukotriene inhibitors and allergen immunotherapy (allergy shots). Patients who have allergic asthma that is triggered by mold may benefit from inhaled corticosteroids or bronchodilators.
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