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Sneezing is not always the symptom of a cold. Sometimes, it is an allergic reaction to something in the air. Experts estimate that 35 million Americans suffer from upper respiratory symptoms that are allergic reactions to airborne pollen.
What is an allergy?
An allergy is a specific immunologic reaction to a normally harmless substance, one that does not bother most people. Along with pollens from trees, grasses, and weeds, molds are an important cause of seasonal allergic rhinitis. People allergic to molds may have symptoms from spring to late fall. The mold season often peaks from July to late summer. Unlike pollens, molds may persist after the first killing frost. Some can grow at subfreezing temperatures, but most become dormant. Snow cover lowers the outdoor mold count dramatically but does not kill molds. After the spring thaw, molds thrive on the vegetation that has been killed by the winter cold.
What is mold?
There are thousands of types of molds and yeast, the two groups of plants in the fungus family. Yeasts are single cells that divide to form clusters. Molds consist of many cells that grow as branching threads called hyphae. Although both groups can probably cause allergic reactions, only a small number of molds are widely recognized offenders.
The seeds or reproductive particles of fungi are called spores. They differ in size, shape, and color among species. Each spore that germinates can give rise to new mold growth, which in turn can produce millions of spores.
What is mold allergy?
When inhaled, microscopic fungal spores or, sometimes, fragments of fungi may cause allergic rhinitis. Because they are so small, mold spores may evade the protective mechanisms of the nose and upper respiratory tract to reach the lungs.
In a small number of people, symptoms of mold allergy may be brought on or worsened by eating certain foods, such as cheeses, processed with fungi. Occasionally, mushrooms, dried fruits, and foods containing yeast, soy sauce, or vinegar will produce allergic symptoms. There is no known relationship, however, between a respiratory allergy to the mold Penicillium and an allergy to the drug penicillin, made from the mold.
Where do molds grow?
Molds can be found wherever there is moisture, oxygen, and a source of the few other chemicals they need. In the fall they grow on rotting logs and fallen leaves, especially in moist, shady areas. In gardens, they can be found in compost piles and on certain grasses and weeds. Some molds attach to grains such as wheat, oats, barley, and corn, making farms, grain bins, and silos likely places to find mold.
Hot spots of mold growth in the home include damp basements and closets, bathrooms (especially shower stalls), places where fresh food is stored, refrigerator drip trays, house plants, air conditioners, humidifiers, garbage pails, mattresses, upholstered furniture, and old foam rubber pillows.
What to do
If you think you or someone you love may have a mold allergy, it is a good idea to consult with your allergist about what can be done to control mold allergies.