You were comfortably sitting in your air-conditioned home and you suddenly felt a throbbing headache, which started as mild but then it became more intense. You took an aspirin and probably thought nothing of it. But when your headaches became more frequent, especially when you were at home, you started to wonder: "Can air conditioning cause headaches?"
Air conditioning can cause headaches. The four most common reasons this happens is 1) Our bodies get dehydrated 2) We experience “Brain Freeze” 3) Dirt or mold triggering allergies 4) Noise.
You know for certain that you cannot go on without your trusty air conditioner to cool you off especially during the blaring summer heat. But you also cannot endure one more headache that disrupts even the simplest activities and upsets you each time it happens.
The good news is there are things you can do to help. You do not have to make the difficult decision between getting rid of your air conditioner and having headache free days. Read on to know how each of the problems mentioned above has solutions.
Cool and Dry, But Not Dehydrated
We feel comfortable in a place with an air conditioner running because it eliminates two of our body’s worst enemies: heat and humidity. Besides making us extremely uncomfortable, the notorious tandem of too much heat and excessive moisture in the air can be the root of serious health problems.
WebMD, a reliable online source of useful health information, listed heat exhaustion, heatstroke, dehydration, and heat rash as some of the adverse consequences of prolonged exposure to hot weather.
Meanwhile, a high level of humidity is the culprit of the growing number of allergy-triggers in most homes like mold, mildew, and dust mites. If left unchecked, these organisms can set off an allergy attack or asthma to children, as the Healthline organization warns.
It is not surprising then that 90% of American residences have air conditioning systems. More and more people in developing countries such as India, China, and Indonesia are following suit to install air conditioning in their homes, according to The New York Times.
On the other hand, there is a fine line between feeling cool, comfortable, and dry from potentially being dehydrated due to extreme cold. Yes, dehydration can go both ways: too much perspiration due to heat or low humidity if AC is left on for too long.
How is low humidity damaging to your health?
Our nasal pathways and also our skin require some level of moisture to stay healthy. If you are left sitting in a room where the air conditioner is running nonstop, it can lower the humidity in the air and interfere with the inner functions of the nose. If that happens, headaches, colds, and other sinus issues are inevitable.
Medical experts also suggest being in a cold environment also tricks our mind that we do not need water to rehydrate our body. People usually associate being thirsty to being hot, and since you are not feeling hot at the moment while air conditioning is chilling the room, you could be parched and in desperate need of some water. Your only trigger that you are very thirsty will be a hammering head pain.
The International Journal of Research in Engineering, Science, and Management published a study that focuses on the effects of air conditioner use on health, sleep, and environment among dental students. Although the research recognizes the improved productivity of students with air conditioning, they also noted that “the intensive use of air conditioning causes the increased inhalation of cold dry air which has side effects on human health.”
A significant number of the respondents, 53.5%, confirmed that their air-conditioned classrooms and accommodations caused them headaches and dehydration, along with breathing problems. An even higher percentage, 57.5%, believes that the air conditioner should not be left on for the whole night while you are sleeping.
The Solution: To avoid dehydration, especially while sleeping with the air conditioner on, it is best to drink water regularly throughout the day and before going to bed. Additional benefits are it can help you get rid of harmful toxins in your body and improve your mood, Healthline says.
Another great way to prevent dehydration from your air conditioner is steam inhalation or steam therapy. Simply put, it is the inhalation of water vapor. The purpose of this therapy is to “loosen the mucus in the nasal passages, throat, and lungs.” Science experts admitted that steam inhalation on its own cannot cure a cold or flu, but it can alleviate the agonizing symptoms such as dry nasal passages, breathing problems, and of course, headaches.
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Brain Freezer No More
If you hear the words “brain freeze”, you might remember the shockingly painful sensation you got when you ate ice cream or slurped a very cold beverage too quickly. What you don’t know is you can also catch this blow to your temple even without eating or drinking anything.
The cold air exhaled by your air conditioner may also cause a slight brain freeze, or some call it the “ice cream headache”. But, doctors such as Dr. Mark Brown from Austin, Texas, refer to it as the "cold stimulus headache.”
In an interview with Dr. Brown by CNN Health, he revealed that brain freeze happens when the trigeminal nerve is stimulated by cold temperature. This nerve is responsible for sending “sensation information for most of the face, head, mouth, throat, and neck.” It will then trigger the blood vessels to constrict and be interpreted as a headache or a migraine.
The Solution: Although the longest possible duration of a brain freeze is from 20 to 30 seconds up to the maximum of 5 minutes, it can still catch you off guard and rob you of well-deserved rest. The easiest way to deal with it is to raise the temperature to 75-78 degrees. Your AC will still prevent you from sweating yet it would keep the cold stimulus headache at bay. In cases where you have no control over the thermostat, covering your head, neck, and ears with hat, scarf, or earmuffs may alleviate the head pain.
Fight that Moldy Problem
Headaches can also be brought about by allergy attacks. Healthline reveals that three common allergies can lead to headaches: 1) Allergic rhinitis, or commonly known as hay fever; 2) Food allergies, especially those with pungent smells such as aged cheese, artificial sweeteners, and chocolate; and 3) Histamine-induced allergies, the chemicals your immune system naturally makes to get rid of allergens.
A fully functioning air conditioner should at least minimize the chance of you being bothered by 1 and 3. After all, an air conditioner filters the air removing pollen, animal dander, dust, and mold from your indoor air.
The disaster starts when the very machine that you trust to keep you away from allergies, accumulates mold and dust within its inner workings. Because of poor maintenance, your air conditioner will not be able to do its job properly of cooling the room and removing the humidity to healthy levels. Do you know what comes with uncontrolled high humidity? Mold growth! And the vicious cycle of allergy attacks continues.
The air conditioner’s filter could also have been neglected and amassed a buildup of harmful organisms. This could lead to further nasties growing on the filter and getting drawn back into the indoor air.
The Solution: To keep allergies and their miserable side-effect headaches from happening, you need to address the origin of the issue. Have you air conditioning system cleaned by a professional technician. In most cases, cleanup of the system and replacement of the filters will do the trick in making your home allergy-free again.
How to Silence that Headache
An air conditioning system can produce many different sounds. It ranges from a persistent low humming to full-on thumping or banging. While some people tune it out, others cannot tolerate the noise as it triggers a painful headache.
Verywell Health, another reputable online resource for up-to-date medical topics, discussed the results of the study where an outstanding upturn of 79% of participants in an experiment exposed to 50dB of white noise developed a headache. Additionally, 82% of them stated that the headache due to the noise they felt was similar to migraines or tension-type headaches.
Imagine being exposed to an AC which could be as loud as 70dB to 80db! There is no surprise then that a noisy air conditioner is a typical nuisance to homeowners and their neighbors as well.
The Solution: Again, properly maintaining your air conditioner can be the fix. Get a professional HVAC technician to help you. A noisy air conditioner could just need a few tweaks of loose nuts and bolts. Or they can help you install sound abatement materials or find a more suitable place for your outdoor unit to reduce noise. If it’s a matter of age of the system it could be more cost-efficient to have it replaced. A good and honest contractor can make that call, so be mindful of which contractor you count on.