Can Air Conditioning Make You Sick?

We all understand the comfort that air conditioning can provide in Australia’s extreme temperatures. However, it can also offer other benefits like providing clean air, controlling humidity and helping to maintain our body temperature. 

But can air conditioning make you sick? And if so, how can it be avoided? 

Air conditioning at home

Unless regularly cleaned, air conditioners can become a breeding ground for a range of bacteria and fungi due to the moisture they produce. In fact, one study found that the average fungal contamination inside air conditioners was over five times greater than that found in carpets1. It also found that air conditioners commonly had penicillium and cladosporium colonies, both of which can make us sick if inhaled over long periods. 

More common health issues relate to the growth of mould in air conditioning units. Mould thrives in damp, dark conditions, reproducing and spreading quickly once established. If the mould is allowed to remain, it ends up being pumped out into the air by the air conditioning unit, and can result in various health effects and conditions. These include: 

Can sleeping in air conditioning make you sick? While leaving your AC at night won’t make you ill, it can still impact us physically by resulting in: 

Air conditioning at work

Can central air conditioning make you sick at work? The answer is a definitive “yes” according to experts, citing the common health concern, Sick Building Syndrome (SBS) as proof. SBS refers to people suffering from illness or becoming infected with chronic disease due to the building where they work or live, and it is most prevalent in larger office buildings with central air conditioning units. 

According to a study in the International Journal of Epidemiology2, occupants who worked in air conditioning buildings reported more symptoms of ill health than those who worked in buildings with natural ventilation. Symptoms included: 

Experts believe the symptoms are caused by allergens, irritants, and toxins in the AC units, which are attracted by moisture.

In terms of viruses, influenza is not spread through ventilation or air conditioning systems, however experts are still unsure about the potential for the airborne transmission of COVID-19. QUT’s Director of the International Laboratory of Air Quality and Health Professor, Lidia Morawska, recommends that during epidemics, you should avoid having air conditioners on recirculation mode as it can potentially bring back the virus into supplied air.

How to avoid getting sick

Air conditioning at home

Filters should be cleaned every one to two months, and a professional AC servicing undertaken at least once a year, although before the start of summer and winter is highly recommended. Your air conditioner also needs to be serviced if: 

Air conditioning at work

While Sick Building Syndrome encompasses a multitude of non-specific systems, building-related illnesses (BRI) comprise specific, diagnosable symptoms caused by agents like bacteria, fungi and even chemicals. There are usually four causal agents in BRI — immunologic, infectious, toxic and irritant.

In many cases, merely improving indoor air quality (IAQ) can reduce or even eliminate people’s continual exposure to toxins. In terms of air conditioning systems, building managers or body corporates can instigate:

Reap the benefits

If your air conditioning unit is cleaned well and maintained regularly, then you will be able to take full advantage of its health benefits. These include:

References

  1. Nobuo Hamada, Tadao Fujita, 2002, Effect of air-conditioner on fungal contamination, Science Direct
  2. Mark J Mendell, 2004, Commentary: Air conditioning as a risk for increased use of health services, International Journal of Epidemiology