What Does Mold & Mildew Smell Like?

Mold and mildew can be such a buzzkill when it comes to keeping one's home clean. If you've ever found yourself noticing strange smells in your house and it's not last night's dinner or dirty laundry, you might have mold or mildew that's causing a musty or mildew smell. When determining the origin of these smells, it's important to keep an eye out for signs of mold that can do severe damage to your home.

Low Angle View Of Shower Spraying Water
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What Does Mold & Mildew Smell Like?

Difference Between Mold and a Musty Smell

The reason why it may be difficult to tell the difference between mold and musty smells in your home is that they're quite similar. Mold and mildew are both part of the fungi family and live off moisture that's in the air. The difference between the two smells, though, is that musty odors aren't as strong as moldy odors.

What Is Mildew?

Mildew is a powdery surface growth that can be found on fruits and vegetables and flowering or decorative plants. Mildew is a type of mold or fungus that grows flat and stays on a material's surface. In addition to growing on fruits, vegetables and plants, mildew likes to grow in high-moisture areas, such as shower walls and windowsills.

What Is Mold?

Mold is a thicker growth that can often cause damage because it penetrates deep into the surface that it's growing on. You can find mold on plant materials, but it's primarily found on building materials, such as walls, flooring and other home amenities. There are tens of thousands to maybe 300,000 or more types of mold, and they favor dark, damp and warm environments.

Adverse Reactions to Mold

One can have many adverse reactions to mold being in a home or office. It's essential to monitor these reactions before they severely affect your health:

  • Respiratory problems - wheezing, asthma attacks, etc.
  • Nasal and sinus congestion or dry, hacking cough.
  • Eye irritation - burning, watery, redness.
  • Nose or throat irritation - sneezing fits, bloody noses.
  • Skin irritations - rashes or hives.
  • Attacking nervous system - headaches, memory loss, mood changes.
  • Aches and pains.

Smell of Mold

Since mold tends to grow on the surface of walls, under carpets, behind drywall and inside insulation, you'll smell it but not necessarily see it. Most people say that mold smells like rotting wood or paper, whereas others say it smells like dirty, wet socks.

Another way to detect the smell of mold is if you feel like you're breathing in stale or damp air, even when the windows are open. It's essential to detect and get rid of mold immediately because the human body can adapt to the smell of mold pretty quickly. If you're dealing with irritation or constant sneezing when you're in a specific room, this can also be a sign of mold.

Mold and Mildew Growth

When it comes to mold and mildew smells, one of the more difficult things is trying to find where it's coming from. Musty and moldy odors can be in a variety of places in your home where moisture tends to build up. Mold and mildew can also collect in areas where you least expect. Here are a variety of places where mold and mildew can be found:

  • Where there's any water leak (plumbing, roof, walls, basement, etc.).
  • Air conditioning units or drain lines.
  • Condensation on windows or exterior walls.
  • Freezer/refrigerator door seals and drip pans.
  • Indoor plants.
  • Wastebaskets and trash cans.
  • Empty beverage containers and glasses, food container recycling that isn't properly disposed of.
  • Materials that have been wet in the past (books, magazines, newspapers, carpet, cardboard, etc.).

When to Hire Help

In most cases, the average person can get rid of mold or mildew on their own. Built-up mildew is easily rectified by cleaning the area. Mold is a bit tricker though. It's pretty easy to clean up mold that's visible to one's eye, but if mold is hiding in drywall, damp hardwood flooring underneath the carpet, behind wallpaper or in your home's ducts, you're going to have to hire a company that has certified mold tests and the equipment to get the mold out.

If you don't know how to clean mold properly and don't have the proper containment, removal equipment and air filtration, mold spores can spread throughout your home. If mold spores spread, this can cause mold to grow in other areas of your home. Mold is extremely toxic, and there are certain precautions to take, which means DIY removal can do more harm than good.

How to Prevent Mold and Mildew

Prevention is critical when it comes to making sure mold and mildew aren't in your home. To prevent mold and mildew, don't leave wet laundry hanging around your house, toss all sweaty clothes in the washer and keep them separate from other dirty clothes, clean out your washing machine every few months and keep all surfaces dry. You can also use a dehumidifier to keep humidity down in your home, and be sure to inspect for mold often.

How to Get Rid of Mold

The only way to get rid of the smell of mold in a room is to eliminate the mold spores that are in that particular room. If you detect mold and need to get rid of it, you can use a solution of bleach diluted in water in a small, confined area. You'll also need a wire brush, plastic bag, bleach, vacuum and water.

Wearing a mask so you don't inhale the spores, scrub the loose mold spores from the surface with a wire brush. Use the plastic bag to collect the mold spores and dispose of this bag immediately. Vacuum the entire room so if there are any loose mold spores, they won't float around the room and into other areas. Using the bleach solution, clean the area and allow the surface to dry before rinsing it off with water. Make sure that the area dries completely because a damp area will allow more mold to grow.

How to Get Rid of Mildew

If your mildew situation is bad, you can use bleach to kill and remove it, but that isn't always necessary. If you're going to use bleach, make sure that you have proper ventilation in the area and you're wearing a face mask and rubber gloves.

Natural Way to Kill Mildew

If you want a more natural way to kill mildew, simply use white vinegar. Vinegar is relatively harmless, but just to be on the safe side, turn on a fan or open a window to allow proper ventilation in the area. Fill a spray bottle with distilled white vinegar. Spray the mildew with the vinegar and let sit for several hours. Soak an abrasive sponge in hot water, dip it into baking soda and then scrub the mildew off of the surface.

Get Rid of Odor

If you've ruled out mold or mildew in your home but you still smell a musty or foul odor, sometimes it can just be a musty-smelling area. To get rid of odor after cooking, working out, doing laundry or from pets, you can use a natural odor absorber like activated charcoal or baking soda. These all-natural odor absorbers can be placed in a room to absorb the funky smell. Make sure to get rid of the natural odor absorber ever two weeks since it will soak up the scent.


Allanah Dykes

Allanah Dykes is a freelance writer and her work has been featured on Elite Daily, Levo League, Popsugar, Complex, Gurl, The Kitchn, HelloGiggles, Revelist, and Food 52.