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Air Conditioning: How Something Cool Can Be Harmful If You're Not Careful

Air conditioning's necessary in Texas heat, but poor maintenance of your system can contribute to health problems.

The Texas heat makes air conditioning nothing less than a necessity, but it also can make for health-related problems if you’re not careful.

Dr. Gilberto Salazar is an emergency medicine physician at Parkland Hospital and an associate professor of Emergency Medicine at UT Southwestern Medical Center. He said those problems can begin with your air filters. 


Air filters are your best first defense: "Think about the amount of bacteria, pollens, viruses that can collect over time. And if we don't do a good job of maintaining our air conditioning system — our ducts, changing our filters — then all of those harmful pathogens can get into our airways."

Changing air filters: "I tell my patients every three months is more than okay. But if you live in a household where you rarely use air conditioning you can stretch that out to every six months even a year. You may want to consider getting those filters changed more often especially if you're having symptoms." 

Don't forget the ducts: "The air coming into your system before it goes through the filter it's bringing up all that dust, pet fur etc. If the filter is not doing a good job, well that's going to go out into air that's recycled into their home and they can make you sick. So I am a big fan of having those systems maintained and that includes cleaning of the ducts by a professional."

Why dry air is a problem: "Fresh air has some degree of moisture in it. Air conditioning really doesn't. A nasal irritation, throat irritation, dry eyes are some of the more common things that we see with exposure to air conditioning. I keep a humidifier, and that's really helped me with irritation of the passages, and I recommend it to my patients."

Impact of air conditioning on people with respiratory conditions: "For some unusual reasons, there are certain bacteria that can live in the air and the cooling systems of air conditioning making patients with lung conditions more vulnerable to some of these infections. What I tell folks with medical conditions, especially lung conditions, is always be aware of where you're going. Ask questions about the filtration systems the air conditioner and take precautionary steps always bring air rescue medications, if prescribed."

Tips for maintaining health in air conditioned environments:

  • Maintain the health of your air conditioning system is absolutely paramount.
  • Change your filters on a frequent basis. Things like carpeting to retain a lot of dust, fur and so you want to take care of your carpets as well.
  • Avoid tobacco in the home.
  • If you have a history of tobacco use, use air conditioning. Some of those bacteria pathogens are more likely to affect you as a patient. 


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Sam Baker is KERA's senior editor and local host for Morning Edition. The native of Beaumont, Texas, also edits and produces radio commentaries and Vital Signs, a series that's part of the station's Breakthroughs initiative. He also was the longtime host of KERA 13’s Emmy Award-winning public affairs program On the Record. He also won an Emmy in 2008 for KERA’s Sharing the Power: A Voter’s Voice Special, and has earned honors from the Associated Press and the Public Radio News Directors Inc.