Aahh.... what could be more divine than that cool blast of air conditioner on a very hot day. All of a sudden, the stifling day becomes bearable. The machine lowers the indoor temperature and humidity, resulting in a cooler and drier climate.
Apart from getting the sting out of summers, air conditioners help in keeping humidity at bay, thereby helping prevent/cure prickly heat. They are also useful in summer-induced heat strokes, as they cool the body. The result, you feel cooler, don't sweat, don't get irritable and sleep like a baby.
Well, while the machine does offer many benefits, overuse or poor maintenance leads to a few health concerns:
- One of the most common reasons of absence in most workplaces is the upper respiratory tract illness, which includes sore throat, cough, cold and tonsillitis. These could either have an allergic basis or be pathogenic. The common cause is a dirty air filter in the air conditioner that leads to recirculation of dust and airborne pathogens.
- Air-conditioned offices sometimes contribute to aggravating asthma. Most places gather stale air leaving no escape for the air-borne irritants such as room fresheners, perfumes, cigarette smoke and aerosols in the form of deodorants, wood polish—all triggers to an asthmatic.
- Another ailment that spreads in closed air-conditioned environs is the common influenza. Apart from this is the Legionnaires' disease, a type of pneumonia caused by the bacteria Legionella, which is commonly found in an air conditioner duct. This is especially found in places like malls, theatres or offices where maintenance is poor.
- Pigeon nests or simply a sitting pigeon is a common sight around the air conditioners. These birds harbour mites, which get sucked into the unit's duct causing insect-like bites, which are difficult to diagnose.
Lastly, the machines affect our largest organ, the skin. Like dermatologist Pravin Banodkar says, "Exposure to low humidity levels created by the units leads to alteration in the moisture-retaining capacity of the outermost layer of our skin leading to dryness. Moreover, the dry air also causes skin problems such as psoriasis and dermatitis."
You can avoid all of the above simply by maintaining your unit well with periodical servicing, recommends Dr Banodkar. Enclosing the area with a wire mesh to prevent pigeons, regular airing of offices or other closed spaces and ample hydration of skin are all of great help. Also, let air flow in and out—an airy well-ventilated room will keep you cool naturally.
Globally, all manufacturers are trying to make air conditioning units that are environment-friendly. Here's the bit that you can do:
- Avoid turning on all the air-conditioners you have in your house at a time; group together in one room to stay cool. This will not only save power, but also reduce the release of more greenhouse gases.
- Buy a good product as it uses energy efficiently—it cools better, thus allowing the thermostat to be set higher.
- Keep filters clean. If they are blocked [with dust], they consume more power.
- Make use of the timer. We do not need the machine to work throughout the night.
- Get regular servicing done to avoid harmful leaks into the environment.
Make the best of your machine
There's no denying the fact that air conditioners save the day and sometimes even lives [particularly in areas where heat waves are common]. Their biggest benefit is that they keep not only our bodies, but also our heads cool. However, since we all have different metabolism, we react differently to different stimuli and hence, some people may experience some discomfort—it's nothing that can't be fixed.
- Exposure to air conditioners can cause common cold, not so much due to the low temperatures, but more because these units dry our mucous membrane to some extent. This predisposes us to infection, say researchers at the Common Cold Centre, Cardiff University. The viruses then find it easy to reproduce in a cold nose. To avoid this, try to avoid the direct blast as much as possible.
- According to American rheumatologist Nathan Wei, "Exposure to air conditioning may cause or aggravate trigger points—overly sensitive, irritated points and bands of pain deep in the muscles". Once again, staying away from the direct blast helps avoid this. So does wearing protective clothing.
- Those suffering from arthritis are likely to react with joint discomfort to air conditioning, as even slight chilling of the surrounding air triggers pain, writes Wayne Brandstandt, MD, in Sarasota Journal. Wherever possible, such patients should keep the cooling to a minimal or should enter the room only after it's cooled.
- The hot summer nights require us to keep the unit on for long hours. To minimise its impact on health, opt for units that automatically lower cooling once the ambient temperature gets cool.
- Air conditioners can harm you if you don't use them wisely. Use them to cool the room, not chill it. Keep the temperatures comfortably low.
- The new breed of air-conditioners comes packed with health-friendly features like humidifiers. Study the manual and get familiar with the features your air conditioner offers to benefit from them.
— Team CW
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