Smell A Musty Odor In My House: Mold Problem Or Something Else?

musty odor in home.

What is that smell? Odors in a home can originate from a variety of sources, including chemicals, bacteria and mold and these odors may vary from mildly sweet to very unpleasant.  Some describe it as a musty odor in their home.

What’s interesting is that our sense of smell, which involves olfactory sensory neurons, can right away detect whether a scent, or odor, smells good or not and if we should be concerned or not.  For example, if you smell smoke, you right away think of something possibly burning or on fire. This sense acts as a safety mechanism, bringing to our attention possible danger, just by what we smell!

Common Odor Sources Indoors

Again, odors can vary greatly.  Common air quality concerns we find are from chemical smells, such as formaldehyde, found in some building materials. This odor may have a pickle-like smell while chemicals such as sulfur, found in corrosive drywall, may have a rotten egg smell. Bacteria odors, on the other hand, often find themselves in dishwashers and garbage disposals.  These odors may have a sewer, dirty-sock or fish-like smell.  Having odors in a home is even considered one of many indoor air pollutants recognized by major health organizations today. This is due, not only because of its source, but also how we feel in our home.

Related: Most Common Indoor Air Pollutants and Your Health

When a Musty Odor is in Your Home

If your house has a distinctive musty smell to it and the odor is getting worse, it is probably related to mold.  Mold growth typically has a damp or “musty” odor. Mildew odors are often found in front-loading washing machines and other wet/damp environments in the home. Also, houses will experience more intense odors during periods of higher indoor humidity levels.

Musty odors due to mold are caused by the release of microbial volatile organic compounds (MVOCs), which off-gas during mold metabolism (or growth). For mold to grow, there must be a nutrient source such as wood, paper, leather or dust and a moisture source such as a water intrusion or elevated humidity. It should be noted that the absence of a musty smell does not preclude the presence of mold growth in the home. Pre-existing mold growth that has become dormant due to a lack of moisture does not typically have a discernible odor. (To humans, trained mold dogs seem to have no difficulty detecting it.)

What Should I Do If My House Smells Musty?

Since musty odors usually indicate a moisture and mold problem in the home, the source of the smell should be addressed as soon as possible. Likely, by the time you notice that distinct musty smell, the moisture source may have already resulted in some microbial growth. This mold problem may be visible or hidden within the structure since MVOCs can pass through walls into the interior spaces more easily than mold particles can.

When musty odors are present, it is recommended that the home be investigated promptly. The inspection would include finding a moisture source. This could be water intrusion or humidity control problems that may be causing the mold to grow. If a moisture problem is found, the source should be corrected and the areas affected should be properly remediated.

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