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Is Your Air Conditioner Making You Sick?

Posted in Air Quality, on September 04, 2018

While summer doesn’t officially end until September 22nd, the hot and humid weather we’ve been having this year is likely to continue for a while, which means we aren’t going to be turning off our air conditioners any time soon. But after a season of intensive use, it’s worth considering if your air conditioner is making you sick.

While there’s nothing more relieving than stepping into your cooled home after a few hours in the sun or long commute home (especially if you’re on public transit!), your air conditioning unit does need regular attention to prevent it from contributing to illness and indoor discomfort.

There are a number of signs and clues that your air conditioner is making you sick, and simple attention to these details may help you catch a small issue before it becomes a big problem. Below are our top 5 signs that might indicate that your unit needs some maintenance attention.

Five Signs Your Air Conditioner Needs Help

  1. No cool air. If you’re finding that warm air or only slightly chilled air is coming out of your unit or registers, it might be a sign that your system is in need of repairs. It could be that wiring is old or damaged, the compressor has failed, or that the Freon levels inside your machine (what helps to chill the air) are too low.
  2. Poor air flow. If cold air is coming out but it’s hardly even a puff, there are several things that may be causing weak air flow. There could be debris stuck in the air conditioner’s vents that are preventing it from getting the air it needs, or it could be internal mechanical problems or part failures. Bigger picture problems in your home’s HVAC systems (such as in the ducts) could also be to blame.
  3. Moisture. Water, no matter where it shows up in the home, can cause big problems. If you notice any leaks coming from your air conditioner, it’s important to have a professional come to your home to assess the problem. At the worst end of the spectrum, it could be that your air conditioner is leaking refrigerant, which is dangerous to people and pets. Water can also be an indication of a backup in the drain tube or a household leak that could cause mold or electrical short outs.
  4. Unusual Noises. While the hum of an air conditioner can be annoying at best, squealing, grinding, grating, or clunking sounds are a serious sign that your air conditioner is in need of attention. These noises are not normal and may indicate that a belt is out of place, lubricant is needed, or motor bearings have worn down.
  5. Unusual Smells. Your air conditioner shouldn’t make any smells at all - if it does, smells could indicate mold growth or burnt out wire insulation, both of which need immediate attention.

Is There Mold in My Air Conditioner?

If you suspect your air conditioner is making you sick, mold growth could be one of the reasons why. Mold growth can affect anyone and can cause mild to severe reactions regardless of your age or health. Some common reactions to mold growth include:

  • Itchy, watery eyes and nose
  • Headache
  • Stuffy nose

While it doesn’t seem like a likely place for mold to grow, your air conditioner is actually an ideal incubator for this harmful fungus. Dust or debris can settle on interior parts that warm up when the machine is running, giving mold spores food and an ideal temperature. Then, condensed water created from the air conditioner feed those spores and allow it to grow.

Three common signs that mold in your air conditioner is making you sick are:

  • Musty smells when it’s running
  • Visible spots of mold or residue, especially around drip trays or condensation tubes
  • Recurring respiratory symptoms that are linked to air conditioner use

Can Air Conditioning Make You Sick?

A common complaint among friends is that excessive air conditioning in the office or home is making them sick - but science has surprisingly little to say about this. A lack of maintenance and poor temperature control are definitely contributing to the perception that your air conditioner is making you sick, and while your air conditioner isn’t spreading the office cold or flu, it’s likely to be making you more susceptible to catching it for a number of reasons.

One thing that your air conditioner does very well is help to reduce indoor humidity. And that’s a good thing - humidity makes for an uncomfortable living environment and helps promote mold growth and condensation problems. Water can only evaporate into warm air, so by cooling your indoor air you make it inhospitable to water and thus reduce the likelihood of mold problems.

But there’s a flip side - dry, moisture-less air means that our bodies can’t get the moisture they need from the environment, and dry skin, eyes, noses, and mouths may result. Cool dry air will cause your skin to lose its lubricant (moisture) and can cause uncomfortable dryness, itching, and discomfort.

Additionally, the common viruses that cause colds survive better in low-humidity environments. If you look at the calendar year, this matches up nicely with the dryer, cooler months when colds and flus are more common. Cold, dry temperatures can make the lining of your nasal passages dry up and create the ideal conditions for a virus to take hold.

Poorly maintained air conditioners can also contribute to allergy and health disturbances by recirculating polluted air.

Can Air Conditioners Produce Carbon Monoxide?

The dangers of carbon monoxide poisoning indoors has been well publicized in the last decade. This colourless, odourless gas kills hundreds of people every year across Canada, and if you live in Ontario, it’s now the law to have a carbon monoxide detector installed in your home.

The good news is that air conditioners do not produce carbon monoxide. While there are other possible reasons that your air conditioner is making you sick, carbon monoxide poisoning is not one of them.

Can Air Conditioning Cause a Cold?

Your air conditioner is certainly not causing your cold, but it could be contributing to your vulnerability to viruses in your indoor environment. Because air conditioning helps to remove humidity from the indoor environment, it also removes humidity from our bodies, drying out our nasal passages. Because it’s a dry environment, your nose may begin to water when you enter an air conditioned room, just as it does when you go for a walk on a cold winter day - it’s your body’s way of restoring some of that lost moisture!

Sudden temperature changes from warm to cool air trigger a nervous system response that causes your nose to start producing more mucus - though this effect should be short lived. Longer term congestion or itchiness may point to increased allergens, such as dust or pollen, that have been released or recirculated by the air conditioner.

Is Air Conditioning Healthy?

The jury is still out on whether air conditioning is more beneficial or harmful to our health. There are many positive factors to using air conditioning:

  • It can help filter out allergens
  • It lowers indoor humidity
  • For those with illness and injury, it can help them heal better by creating a comfortable environment.

But for some people, the negatives outweigh the good:

  • Air conditioning can contribute to health issues such as breathing trouble, headaches, fatigue, and irritating skin
  • It can contribute to mold growth
  • Excessive air conditioning increases our energy usage and contributes to climate change

While much isn’t known about the long term effects of air conditioning systems, the fact remains that during heat waves, air conditioning saves lives and helps us perform our daily tasks in otherwise oppressive heat conditions. Like anything, moderation is key - to accommodate the preferences of all folks, raising your thermostat by a degree or two can relieve the negative effects of a overly cold environment while ensuring everyone is still comfortable and healthy.

Can You Sleep With Air Conditioning On?

The results of a recent study suggest that your air conditioning can inadvertently have a negative effect on your sleeping habits if it’s set too high.  Research from the Toyohashi University of Technology found that an increase in air conditioner air flow caused an increase in sleep disturbances, heart rate, and wakefulness, and suggested the effects might be increased for women or elderly people particularly affected by the cold.

While cooler temperatures definitely have a positive effect on sleep, some people find overnight air conditioner use results in sore throats and congestion the next morning. Raising the temperature on your thermostat just before you go to sleep can have a positive effect on your night’s rest by keeping you comfortable.

One way you can help reduce these effects and still get a good (cool) night’s sleep is by raising the temperature on your thermostat just before you go to sleep - we recommend a temperature around 23 degrees Celsius for optimum comfort!

The Key To Good Health and Summer Living

If you’re concerned your air conditioner is making you sick, we can help! The SafeAir team can help test your indoor air quality and pinpoint any problems in the overall system that are contributing to indoor discomfort, allergies, or mold growth. Often simple maintenance, repair, or more regular filter changes are all a house needs to resolve health concerns related to air conditioner problems. If you have any questions about your home and air conditioner, give us a call at 416-414-5690!

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