- Spore-releasing fungi as imagined by German biologist/artist/everythingest Ernst Haeckel.
Have you had trouble breathing lately, perhaps suffered a chronic runny nose? Is your face bulging outward and attracting unkind comments from children on the street?
Then perhaps you have a rare condition called allergic fungal sinusitis, in which a large ball of fungus and snot grows in your sinus cavities. Surgery is one option to have it removed.
Yep, it's the beginning of the peak mold growth in D.C. and the air is rife with fungal spores. Yesterday, the count was “high” with 19,412 spores per square meter, according to an analysis by the U.S. Army Centralized Allergen Extract Lab at Walter Reed Army Medical Center. That's more spores than people living in Adelaide, Australia, and every one of them would love nothing more than to be sucked into your warm, moist respiratory cavities and start building a family numbering in the millions.
Molds, which are fungi that typically grow in branching filaments, thrive in the kind of humid and stormy weather that's descended upon the District. They're perhaps not as widely hated as tree pollen, but that's not to say they're a force without significant powers of annoyance.
“It's a different animal from the pollen. A lot of folks don’t pay too much attention to the mold,” says Susan Kosisky, co-chief microbiologist at the Army's allergen lab. (You may remember Kosisky from an earlier discussion about D.C. pollen allergies. Read that piece here.)
But mold allergies aren't like ragweed or tree allergies, Kosisky explains. They don't end after a season; they're present year-round, though the snow does damp the spore levels down a bit. Mold has a distinctive two-pronged attack that can demolish allergy sufferers. First, there's the reaction that can occur when the spores are inhaled. But then molds may emit caustic metabolites known as mycotoxins, causing subsequent and more serious reactions or even chronic illnesses.
Molds aren't all bad, though. They're an indispensable player in the ecosystem, where they break down dead matter like fallen trees and leaves. The problem is that they just love being everywhere. Mold indoors is bad, and now's the time when allergy sufferers should be headed to the hardware store for their super-fine-mesh A/C filters and whatnot.
The density of spore clouds in D.C. starts to rise in May and June and then motors into a heavy climb from September through October as the dead material starts to pile up on the ground. On a productive day, the air might be rife with the reproductive particles of 20,000 different species. Here's the mold count in D.C. over the past decade, courtesy of the Army:
“With these showers on and off, it’s horrible, because within hours we can get the Ascospores and Basidiospores to take off,” says Kosisky. “With molds, you just add water.”
So what is this Asco-whatevers and Basidi-huhs? Kosisky's talking about? Here are brief rap sheets for a few of the spores clogging the local air yesterday:
Penicillium/Aspergill: These two molds are similar-looking enough under a microscope to be grouped as one allergen. They are often found outdoors in decaying organic matter and indoors in dank areas and the backs of wet carpets. Colonies look like velvety green or white blooms. Penicillium's widely-hailed antibiotic properties make it a medical superhero (and one variety creates delicious blue and Stilton cheeses), but the mold can also emit mycotoxins that may cause stiffness and eye-color changes in ducklings and mice. Oh, plus convulsions and death in high doses. In humans, these molds can exacerbate allergic reactions that make breathing difficult.
Ascospores: These spores lift off from delicious fungi like morels, truffles and delicious-with-a-bit-of-tinkering fungi like brewer's and baker's yeast. A few also arise from the dreaded Dead Man's Fingers. Most spores don't have much of a pathogenic effect on humans, though a few rogue problem-makers exist.
Cladosporium: This woolly, olive-to-black-colored organism is the most common mold outdoors, though when molds are outdoors they're more often than not inside your home, too. Look around: Cladosporium could be multiplying inside your refrigerator or basking in the wet environment of your bathroom. (Go wash your toothbrush, now!) The spores can trigger allergic reactions much like hay fever, and even open the door to pneumonia if the allergy is bad enough.
Basidiospores: These little guys are shot out by Basidiomycete fungi like mushrooms, puffballs, jelly fungi, “smuts, bunts” and “rusts.” One study in the Pacific Northwest suggest that these spores might be giving respiratory trouble to lots of loggers and Etsy artists.
In general, mold can cause wheezing and stuffiness and a sore throat in susceptible people. In worse cases, mold can trigger asthma attacks or start building colonies inside your body. Then you could be in for a world of hurt. For readers who haven't heard enough about the wonderful allergic fungal sinusitis, here are some more gruesome details from the Fungal Research Trust:
Antihistamines will not relieve this. Many also suffer from headaches, facial pain and swelling, and a cough. Some people complain of producing an almost solid nasal discharge which may be green or brown in colour. Patients may occasionally suffer from bad breath due to the build-up of fungus....
In a minority of patients there is expansion of the bone of the nose and sinuses, a rare occurrence which can push the eye forward or cause hypertelorism (increased distance between the eyes due to expansion of the nasal bones). These changes may be noticed by others.
For you grim folks out there who want to see what the surgical removal of a fungal minie ball from the schnoz looks like – and I know there's gotta be at least one of you – here's a video that leaves nothing to the imagination. But I wouldn't watch it within 50 hours of a meal.