Can the air conditioner make you sick?

Poorly maintained conditioning systems can be harmful.
Poorly maintained conditioning systems can be harmful.

We all appreciate air conditioning on scorching summer days, but during winter these very systems come under criticism as being the source of germs that cause colds and flu. Is there any truth to this?

Health24's enviro-health expert, Olivia Rose-Innes agrees that air conditioning may possibly be harmful; however, she points out that this is hard to prove.

She explains that poorly maintained systems can harbour organic contaminants like bacteria and mould spores that may aggravate respiratory tract infections and illnesses in susceptible people.

“People in offices with air conditioning report more symptoms than those in offices with natural ventilation.

"Symptoms are varied, from headaches to respiratory-tract problems, including sinusitis, but are seldom linked to a specific cause.”

AC unlikely to spread flu

Rose-Innes says that although it is possible that infectious diseases like colds and flu may be spread by air conditioning, it’s probably rare. She says individuals are more likely to catch a cold in an indoor office with no natural ventilation or simply through contact with contaminated surfaces.

“The temperature the aircon is set at won't make you sick – though it can certainly raise stress levels if it's at a temperature you find uncomfortable,” Rose-Innes says. 

Allergies 

Another common misconception is that air-conditioning units can cause allergies. 

Dr Adrian Morris, Health24’s in house allergy expert, says although there might be a connection between air conditioning and one’s health, one cannot be allergic to air-conditioning systems.

“You can’t be allergic to air conditioning; it’s a machine that cools air just like your fridge.”

He says air-conditioning systems may, however, dry the nose and aggravate sinus issues.

Dr Morris notes that mould spores do thrive in air-conditioning machines, so make sure you clean the filters regularly. “Mould spores may grow in a wet conditioner, which could trigger allergies.” 

Image credit: iStock

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