Is a Damp Home Causing Your Cough and Sniffles?


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.

New study examines adult risks

While we’ve long known that excess moisture promotes mold that can have significant effects on breathing and lung health, most studies have focused on the side effects of dampness and mold exposure in children or in adults with asthma or other lung conditions. A November 2017 Swedish study published in Clinical & Experimental Allergy associated dampness in the home with upper- and lower-respiratory tract symptoms (those affecting the nasal passages, sinuses, throat, and lungs) in 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 issues, including wheezing, nighttime coughing, and chronic bronchitis-and people in the study who lived in damp environments were more likely to smoke than others The study’s findings support an earlier report from the National Academy of Medicine, 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 breathing conditions and those with other chronic health issues. Following a natural disaster, seasonal allergy sufferers may also find that their symptoms are more severe or occur earlier than usual owing to 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:

  • Cough
  • Irritated eyes
  • Shortness of breath
  • Skin irritation
  • Sinus pain or congestion
  • Stuffy nose
  • Wheezing

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. 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 dampness-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 air conditioning or a dehumidifier to prevent excess dampness and mold development. Be sure shower 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 out an experienced professional.

Recognizing mold

A type of fungus, molds come in many varieties and exist on different surfaces. Household mold is a sign of excess moisture, as in leaky plumbing, a poorly vented appliance, water damage behind a wall, and the aftereffects of flooding. Homes built in damp climates or near a wetland or swampy area are particularly prone to mold outbreaks. Most mold species are black or greenish black, and a large amount of mold gives off a distinctive damp and musty odor. Mold may appear cottony, velvety, or fuzzy, or look like grime and dirt, especially on the grout between bathroom tiles. Closets, cabinets, window moldings, shower stalls and curtains, and surfaces around air conditioners and ventilation systems, are frequent breeding grounds.