“It’s the air-conditioning,” is a response many of you will have heard. It’s used in homes and offices regularly to explain everything from a cold or a dry cough to fatigue and ski n irritations. Dr. Yaser Abu El Sameed, Staff Physician in Cleveland Clinic Abu Dhabi’s Respiratory & Critical Care Institute, explains what impact air-conditioning really has on your health.
Do air-conditioning systems harbor and spread germs?
The idea that air-conditioning spreads germs is something that many people believe. Dr. Abu El Sameed says that while there is a degree of truth in this, it doesn’t give the whole picture. “Air-conditioning systems typically recirculate the same air, so if someone coughs or sneezes without covering their mouth or nose properly these germs can be dispersed into the air. However, that doesn’t guarantee that they will be transferred to someone else.”
More concerning he says, is old or poorly maintained air-conditioning systems, which can be a breeding ground for mold or mildew. “AC units are full of moisture, and when combined with hot, humid conditions, they provide an ideal environment for bacteria to grow.” He adds, “For those who have allergies, respiratory conditions or weak immune systems, this could lead to a worsening of their symptoms or an infection.”
There are, however, benefits to air-conditioning as they provide a filter to external pollutants that can also be a trigger for those with allergies or respiratory conditions.
What about dust?
Dust particles are also present in the air and absorb moisture that is created by air-conditioning says Dr. Abu El Sameed. This drop in moisture levels can result in people experiencing dry eyes or skin, while the presence of dust, particularly after a sandstorm when dust levels increase, can create problems for those with respiratory conditions or allergies.
Isn’t air-conditioning essential for keeping us cool?
The answer is of course yes. “Air-conditioning is considered vital in helping us to survive in hot temperatures. Too much exposure to heat can result in heat stress and heat-related illnesses like heatstroke,” Dr. Abu El Sameed explains.
That’s not to say, however, we should live cocooned in a cold air-conditioned environment 24/7. He adds, “Spending large amounts of time in a cold environment can leave your body feeling stiff, and for those suffering from chronic conditions like rheumatoid arthritis this can be detrimental to their symptoms.”
“Living continually in a cool environment can also make your body less tolerant to heat. When you have to spend time outside or in a hotter environment this may lead you to feel fatigued.”
Why air-conditioning maintenance matters
Many of the ill-effects of air-conditioning can be countered with regular and professional maintenance of systems. “If you’re moving into a new home or office, or your AC unit hasn’t been used in a while, have it cleaned before you first switch it on. There’s a likelihood that mold or dust will have built up, so get a professional heating, ventilation and air-conditioning (HVAC) team in to check and clean the system,” he recommends.
Dr. Abu El Sameed also suggests the following tips to improve the health of your AC system and minimize its usage:
- Quarterly cleaning of air vents and filters by a professional HVAC company who should also replace any filters that are showing wear and tear.
- Keep your home and office clean to limit dust and germs within it.
- Use a humidifier to keep moisture in the air.