Could Your Air Conditioner Be Making You Sick?

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On a scorching summer day, air conditioners do more than help you stay comfortable indoors. They help protect against such serious maladies as heatstroke and filter out some pollutants and allergens.

Air conditioners can be especially important for people with lung or heart disease who might struggle to breathe easily when air is hot and humid, says Norman Edelman, M.D., a senior science adviser for the American Lung Association.

But without proper care and maintenance, air conditioners also have the potential to cause health problems, especially when mold grows inside them. Here, how to stay cool and healthy when using portable or window air conditioners.

Watch for Mold

Mold that finds a way into your home can cause such symptoms as throat irritation, wheezing, and congestion, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. 

Living with a moldy air conditioner “would increase your chances of having a respiratory infection,” says Mark Mendell, Ph.D., an affiliate scientist at Lawrence Berkeley National Laboratory who has studied the health effects of ventilation systems. Here’s how to know whether mold has taken up residence in your air conditioner and how to prevent that from happening.

Banish Bad Air

Avoid buying a window unit with a vent—a small opening that lets in air from the outside—especially if the air quality where you live might be poor, say, near a power plant or a school where buses idle.

You want to avoid letting in particulates like diesel exhaust that can cause or exacerbate health problems such as asthma and lung inflammation. Vents can also let in pollen, ragweed, and other allergens, so if you’re sensitive enough to avoid opening the windows, stay away from vents as well. (Very few air conditioners have a vent; most only recirculate air from the interior of your living space.) 

You should also make sure an air conditioner’s side panels are installed snugly against the side of the window frame so that hazardous outside air can’t creep in. For extra protection, use the foam strips that come with most air conditioners and lay them across the top and underneath the air conditioner when you’re installing it to create a better seal.

Avoid Quick Temperature Changes

If you have asthma, you might experience respiratory problems if you breathe in very cold air after being out in the heat. Older people often have a hard time with extreme…

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