You’ve got a stuffy and/or runny nose…swollen and tender sinuses…and fatigue that just won’t go away. Sounds like the classic symptoms of a sinus infection (aka sinusitis), so your doctor prescribes an antibiotic. You take a full course of the medication, but you still feel rotten.

Feeling frustrated, you switch to an over-the-counter decongestant, and then you get another prescription…this time for a steroid. When the symptoms drag on for 12 weeks or more, it’s official—you’ve got chronic sinusitis.     

Most doctors are quick to blame this condition—the bane of some 34 million Americans each year—on a bacterial infection, nasal polyps or a deviated septum. The problem is, they’re all too often wrong.

Eye-opening statistic: In a landmark study published in Mayo Clinic Proceedings, 96% of people with chronic sinusitis were found to have fungus in their mucus—and worse still, the symptoms were exacerbated by mold (a type of fungus) in their environment. 

When doctors prescribe antibiotics for acute sinusitis that’s not caused by bacteria (a practice that evidence-based medical guidelines do not support), it often leads to chronic sinusitis because these drugs don’t eradicate viral or fungal infections or allergic sinusitis—which are the likely root causes. 

Here’s how to discover whether mold is fueling your chronic sinusitis—and what to do if it is…

The Mold Menace

Most people are scared of mold—but they’re not scared enough! Not only is this common environmental toxin (mycotoxin) implicated in a significant number of cases of chronic sinusitis, it also causes or complicates a surprising number of cases seen in clinical practices of allergies and asthma, two conditions that often occur together. 

Mold is especially dangerous because it is…

• Pervasive. Outside, it’s found in leafy piles, dense vegetation and plant debris. Inside, mold is found in damp areas, such as those near leaky roofs and sinks…behind appliances connected to plumbing (such as the refrigerator, washer and dishwasher)…in basements with high humidity…under carpets…and behind walls. You can even find mold in clothing (such as sweaty gym clothes) that’s not washed within a few days of use.

• Invisible and airborne. Mold spores can easily find their way into your nasal passages and lungs. Mold can then live in your body as a low-grade, ongoing inflammation/infection. Mold spores are insidious—the toxins from mold may cause serious illness even when the mold itself is hidden from view.

• Highly allergenic. Millions of people react to one or more types of mold. This can trigger allergic symptoms (including chronic sinusitis)…or cause or complicate cases of asthma.

Defeating Mold

You can detect and remove environmental mold. And you can strengthen your immune system so that your body is more mold-resistant. Here’s how…

• Suspect unhealthy levels of mold if there’s discoloration or black mold on baseboards, wallboards or wallpaper…if there are cracks in shower tile or leaks under the sink…if carpet or padding is in direct contact with a concrete slab…if your air-conditioning or heating has been poorly maintained…if you have a damp basement or crawl space…if there are watermarks or mold spots on walls…or if your dwelling has a musty, moldy odor. 

Useful clue:If you have chronic sinusitis, mold may be an issue if you feel worse when you’re in a building affected by a recent leak or flood, such as your house, apartment, office or vacation home. Note: These places may also harbor hidden mold, even in the absence of a known flood or leak.

Another clue: You have been treated repeatedly for acute sinusitis…or have multiple infections that never get better.

Helpful: If you can’t see mold but have chronic sinusitis, allergies or asthma, buy a mold-detection kit. These kits are widely available online and at hardware stores.

Don’t expect there to be no mold—like bacteria, it can be found everywhere. But high levels (as described on the test kit instructions) are a red alert. If the test detects high levels of mold and you subsequently discover a moldy area that covers less than 10 square feet (about three feet by three feet), you can probably clean it yourself. 

What the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention recommends: Scrub with a mixture of one cup of laundry bleach and one gallon of water (never mix bleach and ammonia) to kill mold on surfaces. (For a less toxic cleaner, consider using undiluted white vinegar, which is especially effective on porous surfaces.) Use a fan to dry the area. Wear rubber gloves, goggles and an N95 respirator. Be sure also to wash your clothes carefully afterward.

For larger areas of mold or if a mold test you conducted detected high levels of mold but you can’t locate the source, consider hiring an experienced mold-remediation professional. (Mold can hide on the backside of drywall, the topside of ceiling tiles, the underside of carpets, etc.) A mold-remediation specialist can be found online, but be careful to find someone who is certified and/or has years of experience.

In addition to addressing any mold in your surroundings… 

• Try immunotherapy. If you have chronic sinusitis, see an allergist for a skin or blood test to find out if you’re allergic to mold. If you are, ask about immunotherapy—allergy shots or drops that can desensitize you to mold.

• Ask about antifungal medication. If you have chronic sinusitis and/or asthma, ask your allergist about getting secretions and/or tissue samples from your sinuses tested to see if you have a fungal infection. If you do, your doctor may want to consider treating you with an oral antifungal medication or steroid.

• Avoid trigger foods. Avoid mold- and yeast-containing foods, including bread, beer, wine and certain cheeses (such as Brie, Gorgonzola and Roquefort), as well as fermented foods, such as soy sauce, yogurt and pickles. Reduce or eliminate refined carbohydrates, such as white rice, sweets and pasta—mold feeds on the sugars that are produced when refined carbs break down, leading to the growth of fungi in the body.

• Consider supplements and other natural treatments. Nutritional supplements that may help battle chronic sinus infections include prebiotics…probiotics…turmeric or its active ingredient curcumin…and natural antifungals, including caprylic acid and artemisia. Follow the dosage recommendation on the label. Once fungal sinusitis is successfully treated with medication, natural treatments can be used, under your doctor’s supervision, to suppress fungal growth.

• Do nasal irrigation. Using saline or a neti pot (filled with distilled or sterile water) once or twice daily will help clear your sinuses of fungus.