How Can Air Conditioning Affect Asthma?

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How Can Air Conditioning Affect Asthma?

The benefits of installing air conditioning are numerous, including keeping us refreshingly cool in summer and wonderfully warm in winter. However, air conditioning does have its downsides, including some that can affect our health. This is particularly the case if you have asthma. So how can air conditioning affect asthma, and what can be done to minimise the symptoms?

What is asthma?

Asthma is a medical condition that affects the airways, which are the breathing tubes that carry air into our lungs. Symptoms can differ between individuals, but the most common symptoms are wheezing, coughing, tightness in the chest and a feeling of not being able to get enough air or being short of breath. There is no cure for asthma, but it can usually be controlled with medicines, including preventer medications. Taken the right way, at the right time, they can make the airways less sensitive, reduce redness and swelling, and help dry up mucus. Asthma triggers include pets, pollen and dust mites, but one of the most notorious triggers is mould.

Does air conditioning affect asthma?

The insides of your air conditioners are the perfect breeding ground for mould to thrive because they are dark and moist, so mould can grow quickly without you even noticing it. Mould in an air conditioner can be particularly harmful to asthmatics, as, in some cases, it can lead to pneumonia and severe infections. Fan-forced ducted heating can collect dust and, if not cleaned, will circulate dust around the house, which can be a trigger for asthma. Evaporative and refrigerated air conditioners can also increase humidity levels, possibly increasing the risk of mould or dust mites. The most vital element for minimising a unit’s effects on asthma is having it regularly cleaned and serviced.

Does air conditioning help asthma?

Mould, mildew, and dampness are common problems in Australian households. They can occur year-round during periods of humidity or lots of rain. Mould spots can negatively impact the air quality in our homes.

When choosing heating and cooling for your home, it is essential to consider your triggers and individual experiences to determine what options will be best for you. Asthma Australia does not recommend one particular type of heating or cooling because everyone with asthma is different. Therefore, different types of cooling and heating may have varying effects on individuals with asthma.

However, air conditioners can help improve your home’s air quality. Split systems draw up air from inside your home, cooling it down and then blowing it back into the house. During that process, the air is passed through filters that remove allergens, pollutants and other contaminants. This can help reduce asthma symptoms, reduce the strain on your immune system, and help remove airborne viruses and bacteria. Some models include a specific air purification filter (such as an ionising filter), which can create even more relief.

In Brisbane’s subtropical climate, our summers aren’t just hot, they are frequently damp. Split and ducted systems can help remove moisture from the air and lower humidity when they are running in Cooling Mode. Essentially, they condense water from the indoor air and drain it outdoors. Many systems also have a Dry mode, which focuses more on dehumidification than cooling.

Temperature fluctuations can also really affect those with asthma, so a constant temperature is essential. Pollen counts are also often high at certain times of the year (like summer), making allergies like hay fever more common and increasing the prevalence of asthmatic issues. This is the time of year when it can be very appealing to open up the windows and doors to catch a cooling breeze. However, this is not ideal for those with hay fever or asthma problems. Air conditioning is an excellent solution for a steady temperature with clean air.

Other methods that can help with asthma

Along with using your air conditioner, other things you can consider doing to reduce mould in your home include:

  • Ventilate. Good ventilation is the key to reducing mould and mildew. When not using your air conditioner, use ceiling fans (but make sure they are dust-free!) and keep windows open as much as possible to encourage good airflow. However, keep your doors and windows shut if there are days with high pollen or smoke levels (from bushfires or controlled burning).
  • Dry out problem areas. Fans, ceiling fans, and dehumidifiers can all help. Refrigerant dehumidifiers are best for hot, humid conditions, and desiccant dehumidifiers are best for cold, damp conditions.
  • Avoid drying clothes indoors. This will add to the humidity in your home.
  • Buy a condenser clothes dryer. These condense moisture and collect it in a reservoir as opposed to vented dryers, which pump humid air back into the room. Condenser dryers are more expensive, but they can help minimise mould.
  • Insulate. Insulation in homes is vital as it helps maintain a constant temperature — cooler in summer and warmer in winter.

Can people with asthma sleep in air conditioning?

Yes, those with asthma can sleep in rooms with air conditioning, which can often help relieve symptoms. This is because when an air conditioner is running, we generally close windows and doors to maximise its cooling potential.

When these openings are sealed off, allergens and irritants that could potentially bring on an asthma attack are prevented from entering the building. The best air conditioning temperature for sleep is around 25°C.

Can air conditioning trigger asthma?

Yes, there is some evidence to suggest that air conditioning can trigger asthma. And can air conditioning make asthma worse? Yes, it can also increase the severity of asthma, however both are generally caused by units that are not adequately cleaned and maintained.

How can I prevent this?

Maintaining your air conditioner regularly is one of the best things you can do to keep it running efficiently and minimise dust and mould. You can easily do certain tasks yourself (although you should always check your AC’s manual), and others should be done by a professional. In terms of DIY maintenance:

Clean the filters

Your indoor air conditioning unit has dust filters that need regular cleaning. The more clogged the filter, the harder the unit has to work to push air through it. Generally, it’s as simple as opening the plastic cover and removing the filter or filters. Before you start cleaning, make sure you turn the unit off. Then, take the filters outside for a good shake and brush. They can usually also be vacuumed for a thorough clean – your vacuum cleaner’s brush head is ideal for this. If the filters are very dirty and grimy, wash them in warm, soapy water and rinse clean. Ensure they are completely dry before you return them to the unit.

In terms of frequency, you should clean filters at least a couple of times a year. Many manufacturers recommend you clean them every few weeks, but it depends on how often you use your air conditioner. Basically, the more you use it, the more often you should clean them.

Some models also have an air purification filter (such as an ionising filter) that can be removed and cleaned. This type of filter will eventually need to be replaced every year or two. Consult your technician to obtain replacements when you book your next service.

Clean the louvres

You may also be able to remove the indoor unit’s louvres. These are the oscillating blades that direct the airflow. Thoroughly clean these and the space behind them inside the unit with a dry cloth or your vacuum cleaner. Again, make sure you turn the unit off before you do this. If you live in a particularly dusty or humid environment or use your air conditioner frequently, you will probably be surprised at the amount of dust and mould that can build up inside the unit.

Dry out the indoor unit

Running the unit in Fan-only mode (or running a ‘dry out’ program if the unit has one) will help keep the interior of the indoor unit dry. Do this monthly.

Clean the outdoor unit

Keep the outdoor compressor unit clear of surrounding plants and grass, and brush away leaves, dust, and cobwebs regularly. Running a vacuum cleaner over the air intake can help clear dust from the inside. However, don’t open up the unit to clean its internal components — leave that to the professionals.

Book in a regular professional service

How often should you service a split system air conditioner? Again, maintenance depends on your location and how often you use it, but it’s recommended you book in a professional service twice a year – before summer and before winter. This will keep your unit running efficiently throughout the change of weather. Technicians will generally test the thermostat, check refrigerant levels, make sure all the internals are in good condition, and clean the fins, coils and drainage. If you live in a very humid or dusty area, consider a service more regularly to avoid dust and mould building up inside the unit.

It’s a good idea to have your system serviced before winter, so it’s ready for the cooler days ahead. Book an appointment with us today!