CIRS & Mold Illness 101: What it Is?

Written By


Expert Reviewed By

Dr. Lauryn Lax, OTD, MS

Dr. Lauryn, OTD, MS is a doctor of occupational therapy, clinical nutritionists and functional medicine expert with 25 years of clinical and personal experience in healing from complex chronic health issues and helping others do the same.

Woman With Mold Illness Laying On Couch

CIRS or “chronic inflammatory response syndrome” or “mold illness” is frequently talked about as a “health hazard,” but often overlooked contaminant when it comes to chronic disease or health conditions.

What is “CIRS”? & Mold Illness

 “CIRS” (Chronic Inflammatory Response Syndrome) is exactly what it sounds like—inflammation that arises in the immune system from a long-time exposure to a chronic health condition or environmental toxins (like mold).

Mold illness, or “biotoxin illness” are two common illnesses associated r “CIRS”—specifically for those affected by it environmentally by mycotoxins (molds, fungi, bacteria), heavy metals (mercury, lead, arsenic) and chemicals (endocrine disrupting BPA’s in plastics, glyphosate in plants and packaged foods, sulfates and parabens in shampoo and conditioner).

Both acute or chronic immune dysregulation can wreak havoc on your health with a host of side effects including:

Symptoms of  “CIRS”& Mold Illness

  • “Allergies”
  • Appetite swings
  • Chronic burning sensation in the throat, chest
  • and/or nasal passage
  • Coughing, wheezing, chest tightness and shortness of breath
  • Loss of balance
  • Depression and/or anxiety
  • Difficulty regulating body temperature
  • Dizziness
  • Eye irritation
  • Fatigue
  • GI distress (diarrhea, abdominal pain)
  • Headache
  • Hearing loss
  • Heightened sensitivity to chemicals, smells and foods
  • Irregular heartbeat
  • Joint pain and/or muscle pain
  • Light sensitivity
  • Memory problems or brain fog or decreased word-finding
  • Mood swings/changes
  • Morning stiffness
  • Muscle weakness
  • Peripheral neuropathy, and sensory neuropathy
  • Reduced color distinction
  • Respiratory problems (suppressed function)
  • Sinus congestion
  • Skin rashes
  • Skin sensitivity, tingling and/or ice pick pain
  • Sleep problems
  • Slower reaction time
  • Serious toxicity may result in impaired speech, seizures, stroke, and paralysis.
  • Urination frequency
  • Vertigo
  • Vision changes (blurred vision, tearing of eyes, or red eyes)

You do not have to have all the signs and symptoms of mold illness—in fact you may just have two or three. For mold illness.

Unfortunately, mold illness or “CIRS” is often overlooked because signs and symptoms can easily fly under the radar, believed to be a “norm”—such as sinus congestion (“allergies”), morning stiffness or frequent loose stools. CIRS is also often missed as an underlying trigger to other co-morbidities associated with mold and biotoxin illness, like autoimmune disease, weight gain/loss, hormone imbalances or skin conditions. No matter how many green juices you drink, many diseases won’t fully heal until you address the underlying cause.

Who Gets CIRS or “Mold Illness”?

Vulnerability to mold toxicity is present in about 25% of the population—most of whom have a genetic predisposition (the “HLA” gene) that inhibits their clearance of biotoxins from their body, and a weaker immune system (i.e. a predisposition for autoimmunity and B cell or T cell imbalances).

In fact, a family can all be living in the same house with mold growth, but only one family member will become ill. This is because that person is the only one with the genetic vulnerability.

Those who are genetically prone to “CIRS” (chronic inflammatory response syndrome) are more prone to develop CIRS if two conditions are present:

  1. Chronic exposure to biotoxins (in the home or work place, food, environment)
  2. A “triggering” inflammatory event (something that fires or activates the immune system, like strep throat or allergens in the air)

For the remainder of this article, we are going to focus on mold illness.

Mold Illness Statistics

Contrary to popular belief, molds can be found in both old and new construction. When water damage occurs, and relative humidity is high enough, mold can grow in as little as 24 to 48 hours.

More than 50 percent of buildings have moisture problems.  In fact, a report by the Federal Facilities Council found over 40 percent of buildings they examined had current water damage, and over 80 percent had past water damage (23). Even in buildings without water damage, mold and other fungi and bacterium can develop when indoor humidity levels reach around 50 to 60 percent.

In addition, the current practice of making homes more energy efficient, means that there is less ventilation with outside air, and toxic mold gasses can be trapped inside, potentiating their effect.


Little Known Fact: Mold Illness is NOT Just Caused by Mold

Contrary to popular belief, it’s not just mold or pathogenic molds that are a concern from water-damaged and humid buildings. This is why both allergenic and pathogenic molds can trigger CIRS in susceptible individuals. In addition, there are multiple other toxins that may trigger “mold illness” or CIRS—both from moldy contaminants (allergens, pathogens and toxic mold) as well as other pathogens in the including:

  • fungi
  • bacteria
  • actinomycetes
  • mycobacteria
  • endotoxins
  • inflammagens
  • beta-glucans
  • hemolysins
  • volatile organic compounds (VOC’s)

Types of Mold

Molds are fungi that can be found both indoors and outdoors that grow best in warm, damp, and humid conditions, and spread and reproduce by making spores. Once established, mold spores can survive harsh environmental conditions, such as dry conditions, that do not support normal mold growth.

Harmful molds may fall into any of the following classifications:

  • Allergenic: Molds that cause and produce allergies and allergic reactions such as asthma attacks.
  • Pathogenic: Molds that cause health problems in those suffering from an acute illness.
  • Toxigenic: Molds that produce toxic substances (mycotoxins) that can lead to dangerous or even deadly health conditions. This is sometimes referred to as “toxic mold.”

The most common types of these molds found in home environments include:

Acremonium (Toxic)

Where it is: Household systems and areas such as condensation from humidifiers, cooling coils, drain pans and window sealants

What it looks like: often pink, grey, orange or white in color

Symptoms: Cause disease in the bone marrow, immune system and other organs. Because it is a carcinogen, it can also impair brain function.

Aspergillus (Allergenic & Toxic)

Where it is: A a wide range of stored food products such as maize (foods with corn syrup, corn, etc.) and nuts, damp walls, wallpaper, floor and carpet dust, tarred wooden flooring, humidifiers and HVAC fans, bakeries, shoes, leather, old bird droppings, potted plant soil, compost

What it Looks Like: Long flask-shaped spores that can form thick layers or walls of the mold. This creates long chains of mold growth on surfaces. Because there are over 185 species of aspergillus mold, it can appear in many different colors.

Symptoms: Asthma symptoms, lung infections and respiratory inflammation

haetomium (Pathogenic)

Where it Is: Usually found in a damp or leaking roof, basement or sink and may be recognizable by its musty odor.

What it Looks Like: cotton-like texture and usually changes colors from white to grey to brown and eventually to black over time

Symptoms: Skin and nail infections, weakened immune system

Cladosporium (Allergenic)
Where it is:
Can grow in warm or cold conditions, common outdoor mold, but often found on indoor material such as fabrics, carpets, and upholsteries

What it Looks Like: Olive green or brown
Symptoms: Sneezing, dry skin, hives, watery eyes, stuffy or runny nose, coughing, postnasal drip

Fusarium (Toxic)

Where it Is: Carpeting, wallpaper and other fabrics and materials; naturally grows on food products and in compost.

What it Looks Like: Pink, white or reddish in color

Symptoms: Brain and nervous system damage; neurological problems or tingling, internal bleeding.

Penicillium (Allergenic & Toxic)

Where it is: Water-damaged homes and buildings and materials such as carpets, wallpapers, ducting and even in mattresses, humidifiers and HVAC fans, bakeries, shoes, leather, bird droppings, potted plant soil, compost

What it Looks Like: Blue or green colored surface with a velvety texture.

Symptoms: Pulmonary inflammation and asthma; further weaken immune system

Stachybotrys (Classic “Toxic Mold” or “Black Mold”)

Where it is: Typically on cellulose material such as woods, cardboard, paper, hay or wicker.; thrives in damp, wet areas with high humidity levels that maintain these environmental conditions for weeks.

What it Looks Like: Black splotches

Symptoms: Difficulty breathing, sinusitis, fatigue, depression, dull aches and pains in the mucous membranes, burning sensations in your airways, a tightening in the chest, persistent cough, nose bleeds, fever and painful headaches.


Where it is: Found in homes and buildings that have experienced extreme water damage. It can be found in kitchens, bathrooms and basements as well as around windows with high condensation levels.

What it Looks Like: Black in color

Symptoms: Skin infections, asthma, allergy symptoms, hay fever

Mold Allergy vs. Mold Illness

Although mold is a part of life, it is the overgrowth of these mold and chronic (ongoing) exposure to that mold that can cause problems—both allergies and illness .

Mold Allergy Explained

A mold allergy produces hay fever-like symptoms such as sneezing, runny nose, itching, nasal stuffiness, watering eyes, wheezing, and coughing. The symptoms are usually easily observable by a physician and therefore are easily accepted and diagnosed. Diagnosis can be confirmed with typical allergy tests for elevated immunoglobulin E (IgE).

Mold Illness Explained

If you’re especially sensitive to mold, you may develop irritation in your throat and nasal passages, often immediately upon exposure. But not all symptoms of mold sensitivity are respiratory related. In sensitive individuals who go on to develop “mold illness,” mycotoxins can produce numerous symptoms (as described above).


  • Chronic burning sensation in the throat, chest and/or nasal passage
  • Coughing, wheezing, chest tightness and shortness of breath
  • Loss of balance
  • Depression and/or anxiety
  • Dizziness
  • Eye irritation
  • Fatigue
  • GI distress
  • Headache
  • Hearing loss
  • Heightened sensitivity to chemicals, smells and foods
  • Irregular heartbeat
  • Joint pain and/or muscle pain
  • Memory problems or brain fog
  • Mood swings/changes
  • Muscle weakness
  • Peripheral neuropathy, and sensory neuropathy
  • Reduced color distinction
  • Skin rashes
  • Sleep problems
  • Slower reaction time
  • Vision changes
  • Serious toxicity may result in impaired speech, seizures, stroke, and paralysis.

How to tell?!

If chronic mold allergy is an issue, the only option for complete relief is to eradicate mold from your environment. Generally folks with mold allergies feel much better simply by being removed from the mold. They also often find that heal much quicker than someone with a true HLA gene and mycotoxin or black mold illness.  If you have an HLA gene that prevents you from excreting mycotoxins—leading to Mycotoxin Illness, in this case you’ll also need help from additional therapies such as binders and possibly antifungal therapies to clear them from your system, which will be detailed more in a future post.

Conventional Medicine Doesn’t Always Get It

Unfortunately, conventional medicine assumes that a response to mold is related to external allergens (outdoors, dust, pollen, etc.)—not necessarily the mycotoxins from molds themselves.

 CIRS (chronic inflammatory response syndrome) is practically unrecognized altogether in conventional medicine as practitioners often overlook environmental pathogenic and toxigenic mold exposure as being a source of health ills, or the possibility of allergenic molds turning into a more serious health condition if exposure continues. Consequently, if a patient’s mold allergy test comes back negative via bloodwork or allergy testing, they are turned away; if it is positive, they are given a prescription for allergy shots or steroids. End of story.

So How Do You Know if You Have Mold Illness?

Stay tuned for the next post where we will talk about diagnostics for uncovering mold illness.

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