Welcome to Am I Dying?, a column that hopes to save you from your late-night WebMD spiraling. You can email us your hypochondriac questions at firstname.lastname@example.org.
In my head (and potentially just to soothe my own anxiety about it) I would imagine a good 60-95 percent of old New York City apartment bathrooms must have some type of mold growing in or around the shower area. I recently overheard someone saying that they had been evacuated from their apartment building for a deadly mold situation. I think I’m probably making a big leap here to assume that what I see in my shower from time to time will kill me, BUT still, I’m curious: what is the difference between the mold most people have, and the mold that is going to turn me into that sea lady from The Shape of Water? I’d really like to know if my daily shower habit should be taken more seriously.
I confess, mold is one of those things I tend to roll my eyes at — it reminds me of people who open the bathroom door with a paper towel over their hand, then hold the door open with their foot, then throw the paper towel in the trash from the doorway. It just feels like there are bigger things to worry about. I know the bathroom is filthy. I know my cell phone is even filthier. I’m still gonna use both.
Mold happens, and it’s almost never the end of the world. Health media has been asking itself how much to worry, or not, in pretty much the same way, since as far back as at least 1997. The CDC-informed consensus is that most people don’t need to worry much about mold — it’s pretty common, and the vast majority aren’t “toxic.” Many are allergenic, but even then, you may not be affected at all, unless you’re allergic.
Nelson Barnes Jr., a mold remediation expert in the Washington area, told the Washington Post, “Mold is a plant,” Barnes said. “If you didn’t touch it or eat it, it wouldn’t bother you. Here’s the problem: The reproductive facet of that plant shotguns spores into the air, and it’s those microbials that we breathe in that cause the problem.” If you are sensitive to those microbials, you might experience sneezing, coughing, or shortness of breath, but you’re unlikely to suffer any serious side effects — and if you do have a reaction, there are relatively simple ways to address the problem (bleach, vinegar, and other antimicrobial solutions). Better yet, you can prevent it.
Dr. Philip Tierno, a professor of microbiology and pathology at the NYU School of Medicine, puts it plainly. “Mold in the shower usually occurs by people who are careless and lazy,” he says. “In other words, when they shower, they don’t wipe up the residual water on the shower curtain, in the tub, on the walls or whatever. Without water, there is no mold.” If your feelings are a little hurt, because it never, ever occurred to you to wipe your shower walls down after a shower, please know that mine are hurt also. I do not consider myself careless or lazy, and to learn I am both is devastating. Do you know anyone who does this??? (Now I’m worried that everyone but me does.)
According to Tierno, there is a lot more we could be doing to reduce our risk of household mold exposure. First, get a squeegee. “When you take a shower, if you have a glass enclosure for example, you should have a squeegee, where you squeegee the walls and that glass, and then wipe up with the dirty towel any residual moisture that you have,” says Tierno. After a shower, he says, you should aerate the bathroom by leaving the door open, or opening a window. And make sure you keep an eye on your shower curtain at all times. “Many people have shower curtains that have drippings of soap and water that remain at the bottom, and that encourages fungal growth, usually on the bottom of the shower curtain,” he says. “When you see that, you really have to replace the shower curtain.” Better yet, he says, use a shower liner to protect the curtain, and then you only have to replace the liner. I know he’s right, but I am also annoyed.
Whether you become an industrious shower cleaner-upper or not, Tierno says mold isn’t likely to pose any major health risk to the average person. “Any fungus can be allergenic,” he says. “You can develop an allergy or exacerbate an allergy if you expose yourself long enough to a fungus. It’s something you pay attention to, but you don’t have to worry about it unless you’re really sensitive to fungi and have existing asthma or allergic reactions.” This much is a relief, though I suspect I will feel bad about the shower squeegeeing for at least a few days, and then I will never think of it again.