As the hot summer months begin to creep up on us, retreating to the cool air conditioning in one’s home or office building is not an uncommon practice. When allergy season picks up or you get that mid-year cold in July, you may wonder if that cold air is actually harming you more than it is helping you.
The use of air conditioning when you have a cold is generally not recommended. Air cooled by air conditioning can create the right type of environment in your home that is perfect for viruses and bacteria to foster and grow
Contrary to popular belief and old wives’ tales, it is a virus, not cold weather or temperatures, that causes the common cold.
But what about that dry cough or sore throat you get in the middle of the summer? Is there such a thing as too cold for air conditioning? What if you stay in an air-conditioned building for too long? Here is everything you need to know about air conditioning and its effects on the common cold, respiratory ailments, and other illnesses.
Can Going in and out of Air Conditioning Cause Colds?
While science has proven over and over again that cold air and weather do not actually cause colds, the reason colds are often associated with cold temperatures is because they can create an environment in your nose, mouth, and throat that allows viruses to stick a lot better.
Cold weather often tends to make the lining of our noses and throats drier, which makes us more prone to viral infection. According to WebMD, viruses survive better and actually thrive in low humidity settings, which is why winter months typically are the cold and flu seasons.
When we enter a building cooled by air conditioning after being outside in the warm sun, our skin sends messages to our brain telling the brain to do something to stay warm. The brain then sends messages to blood vessels in the skin, nose, and throat to constrict, which helps us stay warm.
This constriction of blood vessels causes the number of our white blood cells in those areas to diminish. Since white blood cells are responsible for fighting off viruses and other diseases, a smaller count makes it less likely that your body will be able to fend off the initial attack of the virus, creating the right environment for it to take hold.
So, while there is no need to worry that air conditioning is causing your cold, it can definitely be a player in creating an environment that will make you more prone to being infected with a virus, which leads us to the next question.
Does Air Conditioning make a Cold Worse?
According to Dr. Greene, a practicing physician and global health advocate, it definitely does not make your cold better. He explains that cold air not only causes your blood vessels to constrict, but it also increases mucus production. What’s more, mucus typically becomes a lot thicker in colder temperatures.
The increase in both these areas of mucus makes it much harder for the mucus to do its job of moving inhaled particles away from the lungs, and instead, clogs up your nose and other sinus regions.
However, if you are basing your cold off your cough and sore throat symptoms, you may need to check if it’s your allergies that are bothering you first. Spring and summer are considered prime allergy months, but many people do not realize they even have allergies. CNN found that many people who believe they have a summer cold actually were reacting to pollen.
If allergies are your case, then air conditioning can actually be good for you. Air conditioning essentially circulates air within your home so those with allergies, or asthma, are not breathing in stagnant air full of pollutants.
In fact, in our previous article, while researching whether air conditioning is good for allergies, we found that people with allergies or asthma should use air conditioners rather than opening windows because it allows for cleaner air to circulate through your home, as long as your air conditioner is being properly maintained. Otherwise, it could lead to other health issues.
Does Air Conditioning Make a Cough Worse?
Even though air conditioning does not directly cause colds or other illnesses, there is a non-medical term for that stuffy, achy feeling often accompanied by a dry cough that seems to come from sitting in a cold house for too long: “air conditioning sickness.”
This “condition” is usually caused by bacteria, mold, fungi, dander, and other respiratory ailments that are living or growing in the air-conditioned space. When the air-conditioned space is already teeming with microorganisms like mold, mildew, or bacteria without any realization, your air conditioner circulates infected air throughout the room and your home, rather than moving around clean air like it is supposed to.
It is even worse when your AC is full of the nasty microorganisms. Because condensation is a by-product of a working air conditioner, it can create a moisture-filled environment that allows bacteria, fungi, and more to thrive. When these germs and microbes float throughout the house our building, they can increase your likelihood of having them stick to you and give you the no-fun mid-summer cold everyone dreads.
Even if your immune system manages to fight off the invaders, they can still clog up your mucus and airways, causing that painful cough. This, combined with the cold air that dries out your skin, can make for an uncomfortable situation, even if it is not an actual cold that afflicts you. That is what makes it crucial to take care of your AC unit and clean it at regular intervals. If you provide proper maintenance for your air conditioner, you will be able to avoid the dreaded “air conditioning sickness” and any other respiratory ailment that could potentially come from running your AC.
That does not mean that there isn’t such a thing as turning an AC down too low.
Can You Get Sick from Your Air Conditioning Being Too Cold?
Similar to what was stated above, cold air will not cause you to get sick, but it is definitely the environment where most illnesses operate. Most heating and cooling technicians agree that there should not be a huge difference between the temperature outside and the one in your home or building (unless, of course, it’s one hundred degrees outside).
While extra cold air conditioning does not cause sickness, it can be the source of mild uncomfortable ailments like exhaustion, headaches, and sore muscles. In fact, the International Journal of Epidemiology published a study that found evidence that linked air conditioning to constitutional and neurological symptoms like fatigue and headaches.
Another potential side effect of sitting in too cold of air for too long is weight gain. While it has yet to be scientifically proven, an article in Everyday Health claims that cold temperatures make people eat more. Studies are also theorizing that because air conditioning keeps us in a “thermoneutral zone,” or a comfortable temperature that we do not have to work for, people do less exercise or movement around the house. This only encourages the unhealthy couch potato lifestyle.
What’s more, because of the constriction of blood vessels to keep us warm in the cool air conditioning, cold temperatures can affect blood flow and blood pressure.
According to the blog Mens-Fitness-and-Health, multiple scientific studies have found that blood pressure increases in people who are exposed to colder temperatures for longer periods of time. This is particularly true for people who have a history of hypertension and is why they are discouraged from using the AC too much.
Your AC is Not the Bad Guy.
All in all, air conditioning is not an immense danger to your health. The coolness of your AC is meant to give you relief from the sweltering sun on those blistering hot summer days, not a devious home appliance to fear getting sick from. The bad actors at play here are the viruses and bacteria that seem to like the cold air as much as we do.
You just have to remember that to prevent the next time you get that mid-summer cold, all you have to do is to practice good health and hygiene, drink fluids, and clean your air conditioner’s filter from time to time, and you should be just fine.
But don’t forget to enjoy some of that fresh air outside too—as long as your allergies aren’t too bad!