8 Gross & Scary Things That Can Happen To Your Body When You Spend Too Much Time In Air Conditioning

by Eva Taylor Grant

When it's hot out, air conditioning can feel pretty close to a miracle. But if you don't clean your AC, or leave it on too high, it can become a bit of a health nuisance. The health risks of air conditioning range from the common but insignificant, to rare but serious. And although the costs don't outweigh the benefits, these things are important to know.

"Air conditioning isn’t necessarily bad for your body," health and wellness expert Caleb Backe of Maple Holisics tells Bustle. "If the AC is good quality and well maintained it should effectively filter the pollution from outside and channel away the moisture and condensation needed to cool hot air." But if the AC is not being properly maintained, it can be an issue for your body.

"Spending time in air conditioning, even prolonged time, shouldn’t necessarily lead to health problems in healthy individuals, as long as the air conditioner is properly designed, maintained and functioning," Adam Perlman, MD. MPH, FACP, an Integrative Health and Wellbeing expert at Duke University, tells Bustle. "However, if an air conditioner is contaminated with germs there is a risk of infection and the higher the fan is blowing as well as the longer one is exposed, increases the risk." Knowing the ways air conditioning can affect your health is just another key to staying safe during high temperatures. And although some of these problems are specific to certain diagnoses, the takeaways apply to everyone. Clean your unit, keep your air at a less-extreme temperature, and always keep an eye on what your body is trying to tell you.

Here are eight things that can happen to your body when you spend too much time in air conditioning, according to experts.


You Can Be At Risk Of Increased Exposure To Bacteria

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While quite rare, air conditioning can actually cause some diseases. In most cases, it's important to know that issues with AC are only amplifying existing environmental factors. "[Both] the positive and potentially negative effects of air conditioning are more related to the effect air conditioning on the environment," Dr. Perlamn says. However, there are some documented diagnoses that stem from faulty AC units.

Bacteria can build up in AC units if you don't properly clean your filter. If you have a window unit, simply replace the filter or take it out and brush it off every once and a while. For a larger central air unit, you may need to hire a repairman.

"Air conditioning is associated with an increased risk of Sick Building Syndrome [a situation in which people feel side effects related to the amount of time they spend in a building] and can increase exposure to viruses, bacteria and fungus," Dr. Perlman says. So while you likely won't experience a rare disease, you may want to be on the lookout for bacteria buildup and know to clean your filter more often than you previously thought necessary.


You Can Get Cold-Like Symptoms

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Spending too much time in air conditioning can make your body mimic symptoms that are similar to a cold.

"Because air conditioning removes moisture from the environment, longer exposure with an AC that is too high can increase the risk for ... symptoms such as dry nose dry eyes or sore throat, as well the exacerbation of existing medical conditions," Dr. Perlman says. If you have a chronic illness, it may be worth it to ask your doctor about AC usage. And if you don't, but are feeling increasingly sniffly at home, then the AC might be the culprit.


A Faulty Air Conditioner Can Cause Legionnaire's Disease

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Legionnaires' disease, a form of lung inflammation caused by infection, is usually pretty uncommon (only 6,000 cases were reported in 2016) but can be quite serious. And, unfortunately, it can collect in AC units, getting people sick who breathe in small air droplets that contain the bacteria from the infected water.

"This potentially life threatening respiratory infection is caused by the bacteria, legionella," Dr. Perlman says Legionella likes to grow in building water systems and that can lead to outbreaks with multiple people potentially getting ill." You likely aren't going to experience an outbreak, but it is worth understanding if you want to know how diseases work.


If You Have Raynaud's, It Can Be Exacerbated

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If you have certain chronic conditions, AC units can either be really helpful, or sometimes quite harmful. For people with Raynaud's, (roughly 28 million in the US alone), the latter is possible.

"In individuals with Raynaud’s, a condition affecting the blood vessels and blood flow to the extremities, exposure to any cold, including a room that is being cooled by an air conditioner can lead to exacerbation of symptoms such as pain, numbness, throbbing and tingling in the extremities," Dr. Perlman says. Regulating temperature, and length of exposure, can be helpful to mitigate these symptoms.


It Can Worsen Joint Pain

Another thing that can happen to your body when you spend a lot of time in air conditioning is joint pain. And this can happen whether or not you have a pre-existing joint condition.

"For some people, especially those with arthritis, excessive exposure to air conditioning may lead to an increase in joint stiffness and pain," Dr. Perlman says. "Whether this is related to exposure to the cooling effects of air conditioning, the decreased humidity, or a combination is unclear." You can try to figure out where the trigger is by using a humidifier or a warm blanket, and then do something you know that soothes your joint pain, like using an essential oil.


Your Allergy Symptoms Might Get Worse

While using air conditioning can be really helpful for people with allergies, because it can help reduce the need for open windows, the AC itself might make allergy symptoms worse.

"Too much time in air conditioning can worsen allergies, especially when the AC is too high and the temperature is too cold for your body," Backe says. "Although many people think air conditioners help keep air fresh, they only cool down old air and recirculate it. This mean that you may be breathing in a barrage of contaminants, toxins, and pollutants. Between pollen, dust, mold, and pet dander, there's no limit to what types of allergens your central AC is distributing." Even if you do your best to keep the unit clean and your house free of allergens, the blowing cold air itself may cause symptoms like sinus congestion. To make things better, try turning the fan down a bit.


Extreme Air Conditioning Can Trigger Asthma Attacks

If you have asthma, you likely know what might trigger your worst symptoms. Still, experts want you to understand that the AC might be on your list. "Contaminated air conditioners can worsen asthma problems," Backe says. Whether these problems are due to the dramatic change in temperature between the hot outdoors and cool indoors, or from contaminants, it's important to know how to take care of your health during the hottest months.

Johns Hopkins University Medicine recommends central air or window units for people with asthma, but highlights the importance of changing or cleaning all filters every month. Things like electric and ceiling fans should be avoided, and windows should be kept closed. No one wants their symptoms to be worse in the comfort of their own home.


You Can Get Really Dry Skin

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If you spend a lot of time in air conditioning, you might notice your skin getting a bit dryer than usual. This is not in your head.

"Because air conditioning takes moisture from the air it can make the skin excessively dry if over exposed," dermatologist and RealSelf contributor Dr. Michele Green tells Bustle. "Due to the lack of moisture in the air, although it may feel cool, you can also experience headaches, feelings of dehydration as well as dry eyes. It is important to drink plenty of water, use products on your skin which will penetrate the dermis, retain moisture and if you experience dry eyes use artificial tears." Dry skin can be helped by moisturizing products, and minimizing the amount of time you spend in excessively cold air can prevent this happening in the first place.

In all, exposure to air conditioning isn't going to be more harmful than helpful. Having air conditioning can prevent all sorts of negative effects of extreme heat. But, it's important to understand how air conditioners affect your health, especially if you have any chronic illnesses. Luckily, keeping things clean and not leaving the unit on its highest setting are two great ways to keep your body happy, even when it's too hot to go outside.