How does air conditioning impact our health?

How does air conditioning impact our health?
Credit: Zeevveez/Wikimedia Commons

As temperatures across Belgium begin to rise once again, those fortunate to have air conditioning in their offices or homes are enjoying a cool breeze. While these fortunate few may avoid the sweltering heat, are they increasing their risk of getting ill?

The culture relating to air-conditioning is much different in the East than it is here in the West. In much of Asia, the use of air conditioning is widespread and many people spend most of the year with their air conditioning units switched on. Here in Belgium, few homes have air conditioning and those that do turn them on less frequently.

Despite its widespread use across the world, there are some that insist that prolonged exposure to air conditioning makes them ill. And they may well be correct.

In Japan, the word “reiboubyou” is used to describe the general feeling of illness experienced from sitting underneath air-conditioning units. The range of symptoms of the so-called “air conditioning sickness” range from chills, swelling, fatigue, stiff shoulders, headache, neuralgia, back pain, cramp, diarrhoea, frequent urination, and more.

In the West, the mystery “Sick building syndrome” causes a whole range of similar symptoms, which some attribute to the way we heat and cool our post-war buildings. Air conditioning, it is believed, reduces the air quality of buildings and increases the chance of getting sick.

Sore throat and tickly nose

While conditions relating to air conditioning are often mysterious, what is known for sure, is that the cold air often dries out our surroundings, and can contribute towards dehydration and irritating our sinuses, increasing the chance of sniffles, sore throat, and dry eyes.

“When you are sitting in an air-conditioned room, you usually end up dehydrated. This is because the conditioner sucks out all of the humidity and leaves the room cold and dry. Due to the cold, you refrain from drinking water as well. As a result, you end up dehydrated,” medical site Doctor NDTV says.

Also important is the cleanliness of air-conditioning systems. If the filters used on HVAC systems are dirty or not-well maintained, it can increase the chance of headaches and migraines.

A recent survey conducted by researchers from several American universities concluded that 38% of people working in unhealthy indoor air reported experiencing a headache one to three days per month, and 8% once a day.

Those sensitive to certain microbial allergens should also ensure that the filters of the air conditioning system are well maintained. If left uncleaned, the microbes and particulars can build up and lower the quality of the indoor air.

Health benefits

But it’s not all doom and gloom, and Belgians should refrain from tossing their air conditioning units from their windowsills-- there are also some health benefits to using air conditioning.

Firstly, air con units may help to boost your metabolism. A 2014 study conducted by researchers from the Virginia Commonwealth University in the U.S showed that cooler temperatures helped us burn unhealthy white fat and may help us to slim down.

Similarly, a 2018 study published by Harvard University showed that students living in dorms without air conditioning during hot summer months performed significantly worse on cognitive tests than those who had access to cool conditioned air.

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If used correctly, air conditioning can also drastically improve your quality of sleep. A study from the U.S National Sleep Foundation found that we get the best rest at around 18.3℃.

During the summer months, air conditioning can be the only way to achieve restful sleep. When using air conditioning at night, it is important to be especially hydrated, as sleeping under air conditioning contributes towards dehydration, which can throw us off kilter for the rest of the day.

Air conditioning is still an important tool for staying cool during the summers and illness can be avoided by following simple steps, such as ensuring that air conditioning units are regularly serviced, keeping aircon units on low, staying hydrated, and ensuring proper ventilation indoors.

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