Plenty of people cannot live without air conditioning—for good reasons because ACs provide comfort by regulating temperature and humidity levels. They are standard appliances in homes, offices, and other indoor environments. But many wonder if air conditioners are too good to be true or if they can make people sick.
Let us explore the intriguing question of can an air conditioner make you sick. More importantly, we will equip you with practical tips for using air conditioners safely and maintaining them to reduce the risks of health problems.
Is Your Air Conditioner Making You Sick?
Your air conditioning system can make you sick if it is:
- Inadequately or poorly maintained. If regular annual maintenance is neglected, minor system issues can lead to serious operational problems. This can lead to constant system failure and inefficient cooling. Some areas in the house may become problematic due to unchecked humidity levels. Molds, mildew, along with certain viruses and bacteria can grow and populate these sections and cause mold allergy, flu-like symptoms, and respiratory concerns.
- Have clogged or dirty filters. When air filters get loaded with dirt, dust, and other air toxins, it forms a buildup that prevents the air conditioner from functioning smoothly. The AC may overheat and require expensive repairs because of uncleaned filters. Your overall comfort and health may be put at risk due to heat-related illnesses if the air conditioner breaks down. Irritants in a clogged filter such as pollen, dust, dust mite, animal hair, bacteria, and other particles can also trigger allergies and asthma attacks.
- Excessively or improperly used. Overuse of an air conditioner may lead to extremely low humidity levels indoors. Lack of sufficient moisture may lead to dry skin, lips, eyes, throat, nasal cavities, and airways. Exceedingly dry air can cause sore throat, congested nose, itchy and irritated eyes, and difficulty in breathing.
You can fight off this air conditioning sickness by:
- Regularly cleaning and maintaining your air conditioning system. Annual maintenance of your air conditioner can do wonders for its efficiency. You will be surprised at how long your unit can last if your trusted HVAC technician catches and fixes early signs of mechanical problems in your AC. You will avoid major system failure and costly repairs if you routinely have your air conditioner serviced.
- Changing air filters regularly and using air purifiers. Maintaining filters may be too easy to forget but we promise it is worth the little time and energy you devote to them. Always check your filters if they need a washing (for the washable type only) or if they already need replacing. But as a rule of thumb, change your filters every 30 to 90 days, with fewer day intervals if you have pets and live in a dry dusty neighborhood. The use of air purifiers can also help trap small particles such as dust and specks of dirt that may pollute your breathing air.
- Installing a whole-house humidifier and keeping your AC at the right temperature. It can be tempting to keep your AC on 24/7 at full blast, but running an air conditioner too cold for too long can lead to health troubles. If you seriously have to have your cooling system on for an extended period, keep yourself hydrated and install a whole-house humidifier to keep the humidity in your home at the right spot.
How Does Air Conditioning Impact Indoor Air Quality and Your Health?
You can easily detect what Indoor air quality or IAQ means from the term itself—it is the quality of the air when you are indoors in a building or structure. But such quality is being measured by how well it impacts people’s health, well-being, and comfort.
Some mistakenly think that air conditioners improve the quality of air in one’s home because it brings fresh air into your home. Others believe that AC automatically cleans the air as it runs regardless of the type and state of its filters.
We are sorry to burst your happy bubble but neither statements above are true. Air conditioning systems do not bring fresh air indoors, and as for their air cleaning quality, you need to have high-quality filters that are constantly cleaned or replaced for them to contribute to air purification.
Let us expound on both points:
The way an air conditioner works is that it takes the warm air in your home and cools it by running the air through cold coils which contain a cooling compound called refrigerant. The cooling process involves removing the excess moisture and lowering the air’s temperature and then blowing back the same air it drew, only slightly cooler. The cycle goes on and on until your desired temperature is reached.
No part of this process involves getting some of the fresh air outdoors and mixing it in the air inside. The truth is, the air conditioning process thrives in airtight spaces, ensuring that no outside air is getting in nor the processed air is getting out.
Because of this recycling air method of air conditioning, the existing quality of air inside your home must be protected and maintained to be free from airborne toxins and pollutants. Otherwise, you will be breathing the same low-quality air causing you all sorts of illnesses.
Filters play a special role in maintaining good IAQ as their job is to trap harmful pollutants in your home. But is simply having a cooling unit with any kind of filter will do the job?
If you want to make sure that your air conditioning system is not causing you any sickness because of indoor pollutants, choose a High-Efficiency Particulate Air (HEPA) type of filter which can trap as small as 0.3 microns or 99.97% of pollen, dust, mold, bacteria, and other airborne particles.
What are the Health Risks Related to Poor Air Conditioning Maintenance?
You might wonder how an important home comfort device such as an air conditioner makes you sick.
Hard as it may be to believe, you can get sick from air conditioning systems if certain conditions are met like lack of or poor HVAC maintenance, the filters are dirty, and your home’s temperature and moisture level are too high or too low.
What type of health hazards are you vulnerable to given these scenarios with your air conditioning?
In 2022, the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) reported more than 1,300 deaths per year due to heat-related illnesses. A fully functional air conditioner in a household can do much to avoid such tragedies.
According to a major study published a year earlier than the statistics from EPA, “access to air conditioning averted 195,000 heat-related deaths among people ages 65 and older.”
Sadly, some homes do have air conditioners but have become inoperable due to a lack of proper and regular maintenance. Seemingly small mechanical issues turn into full-blown operational problems because of neglect. When this happens, you and your family are susceptible to heat exhaustion, heat cramps, and heat stroke during the hottest parts of the year.
Failing air conditioning systems can also cause unbalanced temperatures around the home. Some areas may be too cold and dry, while others are too damp and muggy. This creates a perfect breeding ground for mold to develop.
Mold has a nasty smell and is unpleasant to look at and moldy air conditioners can increase your chances of respiratory infection. Additionally, they can trigger mold allergies. A person with mold allergy will show symptoms like a common cold, coughing, headaches, sneezing, runny or congested nose, itchy eyes, and irritated throat.
PRO TIP: Save your family from these health risks by subjecting your central air conditioning unit to annual maintenance. Stick to a regular schedule of routine cleaning, checkup, and servicing and you will reap long-term benefits such as a long-lasting air conditioner and peace of mind.
Allergies and Asthma Attacks
Speaking of allergies, molds are not your only enemy in this arena. Small as they may be, dust, dirt, pollen, animal hair, bacteria, viruses, and other air pollutants can be damaging to one’s health. They can trigger allergy attacks that can go from mild to severe and life-threatening.
In certain cases, an allergic reaction can impact the lungs and airways prompting an asthma attack.
To prevent the spread of allergens, a typical air conditioner has filters that trap these contaminants from circulating inside the air conditioner unit itself and into your breathing environment.
However, these diligent soldiers called filters cannot do their job forever. They need to be constantly washed or replaced so they would be rid of the blockage of dust or dirt buildup. Research shows that the average fungal contamination inside air conditioners is “about 5-fold greater than that of a carpet.” Gross, right?
PRO TIP: There is no way around these health hazards but to clean and replace your filters regularly. Do not wait for the standard 30 to 90 days mark but always check your filters if they need changing. Such a simple act can help protect your health from troublesome allergies and asthma. Air purifiers are also a great addition to your home devices to remove even smaller particles of airborne toxins.
Health Problems Caused by Immoderate Temperature and Dry Air
Some think that heating systems in a cold season are the only culprit for dry air-related sickness. The truth is, even the air conditioner on a blazing summer day can do much damage if you overuse it or do not keep your temperature monitored.
Yes, cold air in an air-conditioned room will cause sickness if the temperature is too low and most of the water from the air is sapped out. Certain parts of your body demand sufficient water to function smoothly such as your sinuses, mouth, throat, lungs, and airways. Without enough moisture, they will become inflamed, congested, or easily irritated.
PRO TIP: Monitor the temperature and humidity levels closely, especially if you have high-risk members of the household such as children, elderly, and immunocompromised patients. Use a smart thermostat to keep the temperature levels in check and install a whole-house humidifier to manage the moisture level in your entire home.