Allergy Expert Offers Advice to Flood Victims

Along with the emotional and financial impact of flood damage, floodwaters may bring health problems. H. James Wedner, M.D., professor of medicine and chief of the Division of Allergy and Immunology at Washington University School of Medicine in St. Louis, said that after the water recedes, damp homes and businesses are fertile grounds for mold growth, which can cause allergic reactions and asthmatic symptoms in sensitive people.

"Mold loves water," Wedner said. "When your building is flooded, it's very difficult to dry it out quickly and completely, and that allows mold to grow. Walls made of Sheetrock soak up water far above the floodline, and mold can be hidden under wallpaper, carpet, and floorboards and in ceiling tiles, furniture, and clothing."

Wedner is a Washington University allergy and asthma specialist at Barnes-Jewish Hospital and has conducted research investigating the molds and other allergens present in homes following the 1993 flood in the Midwestern United States.

Molds (and mildew, a type of mold) are fungi, which reproduce by releasing spores. Inhaling the spores causes allergic reactions in some people. Symptoms of mold allergy include itchy, watery eyes; itchy, runny nose; headaches above and below the eyes; itchy ears and changes in hearing; itchy throat and palate; difficulty breathing; coughing; and shortness of breath. Mold spores may also trigger asthmatic reactions in asthma sufferers.

If a doctor confirms that health symptoms stem from a reaction to mold, medical treatments are effective: those can be pharmacotherapy--which may include antihistamines or steroids, given intranasally or orally--or if necessary, immunotherapy, often called allergy shots, which allow your immune system to build up a tolerance to the allergen. But Wedner emphasizes that the source of the reaction, the mold itself, also has to be removed.

For those who have to deal with a flooded building, Wedner has the following recommendations:

  1. Dry it out quickly. Mold will grow almost immediately in wet conditions.
  2. Cool it down. Mold likes warmth as well as humidity.
  3. Remove wet materials.Wet Sheetrock can't be repaired and must be taken out;
  4. Clean anything that has been wet.That includes clothing, which should be dry cleaned.
  5. Throw away anything that can't be thoroughly cleaned.That favorite couch might have to go.
  6. Hire a professional to clean affected areas of the building with appropriate materials.Often a solution of 10 percent bleach is used.
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