Depression and fatigue, though common conditions, can be a clear sign of mold-related illness under the right circumstances.
For private practice physician Dr. Natasha Thomas, it was a move to Myrtle Beach that kick-started her own medical battle with mold.
“I had absolutely no clue what was going on with me,” she said.
Following recent flooding and a series of storms, including Hurricane Florence, coastal South Carolina families have become quite familiar with water damage, mold and, unknowingly for some, the health concerns that come with both.
According to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, warm and humid conditions like those found in flood-prone areas encourage mold growth. To fix these conditions, it’s highly recommended that someone with knowledge of mold-related dangers address the problem.
One of those dangers includes mold illness.
“I think it’s an epidemic,” Thomas said.
But these issues aren't confined to South Carolina. Recently, the University of Maryland had to relocate more than 500 students due to the presence of mold. The Baltimore Sun reported that students in the affected dorm were constantly coughing. The conditions were described as "gross."
Mold illness, or biotoxin illness specifically, is an innate immune response referred to as chronic inflammatory response syndrome, Thomas said.
Medical University of South Carolina microbiology professor Dr. Michael Schmidt compared it to his own cat allergy. He said when he comes in contact with cats, his immune system responds in the form of puffy eyes.
“It doesn’t take much to set off your immune system,” Schmidt said.
An allergy is the body’s immune system reacting to a substance in the environment. With biotoxin illness, he said the body’s immune system can have a dramatic response to exposure to mold particles. Symptoms may include coughing, respiratory issues and sore throat.
But other symptoms associated with mold illness may not be so obvious.
For Thomas, she said it all started back in 2009 with a level of severe anxiety she wasn’t familiar with. She said she had just finished her residency in Detroit when she came to South Carolina to work in internal medicine at Grand Strand Medical Center. She attributed a lot of her anxiety to that.
Eventually other issues like insomnia, abdominal bloating, brain fog and unusual body aches started coming up. The most horrific symptom she said was her fatigue.
“I couldn’t stay awake,” she said. “I was so exhausted.”
A physician, she was puzzled about why she couldn’t pinpoint the issue. She said she also consulted several physicians who produced results showing she was healthy.
Because of this, her severe symptoms went unaddressed for years, she said.
“I was just falling apart.”
It wasn’t until about three years ago when a colleague suggested that she visit the website survivingmold.com that she first learned about biotoxin illness and how her environment was potentially impacting her health. From there, she said she recognized that many of the symptoms listed were the same symptoms she had.
This, combined with additional research, led her to discover that she was being consistently exposed to mold.
“It was my home ultimately, that was the final hit that nearly killed me,” she said.
According to a study published in Integrative Medicine, 50 percent of residential and work environments have water-damage. If left unchecked, this water-damage can immediately lead to the presence of mold, according to Dr. Maria Streck, an allergy specialist at MUSC.
Mold also can be hidden beneath a floorboard or in an attic, Streck said. That's why an expert is recommended in the removal.
“It keeps spreading,” Streck said. “It really has ruined a lot of homes.”
For people with allergies, mold can trigger lasting symptoms if the issue isn't addressed, according to Streck. For people with weakened immune systems because of prior health conditions, they are more likely to get mold infections, according to the CDC.
One the first steps in eliminating the illness is eliminating exposure to the mold, Schmidt said.
Thomas said that at least 25 percent of the population is susceptible to mold illness, and some doctors aren't familiar with the problem.
One way to combat this, Schmidt said, is to give a primary care physician as many details as possible when seeking treatment. He said patients should be sure to mention the potential exposure to mold due to recent water-damage.
"Your physician is only as good as what you tell them," he said.