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How air-conditioning can affect your ears, nose and throat health

Last update on Jul, 31, 2023

How to protect your ears, nose and throat from air-conditioning

Whether you live in a hot climate year-round or only experience heat waves during the summer, air conditioning is a reliable ally in controlling the heat. However, despite the cooling relief your AC unit can provide, the effects of air conditioning on ears, nose and throat health are important to keep in mind. By understanding how these home appliances affect your well-being—from the side effects of sleeping in air-conditioning to the ties between air-conditioning and ear pressure and much more— you can learn how to use AC without negatively affecting your health. Learn how to protect your health while keeping cool.

How can air-conditioners affect your health?

At the most basic level, air conditioners draw in the warm air from your home and return cool air. This process continues until the unit senses the interior temperature has reached the desired level. The unit restarts the cycle when the temperature rises.

When the heat is removed from the warm interior air, moisture from the air is taken out too. This means that while you’re feeling cool air inside, you’re also experiencing very dry air. Because AC units often run continuously, pumping dry air into a space for long periods, interior humidity drops significantly.

Without some moisture in the air, your nasal passages and mucus membranes of the middle ear also dry out. Typically, these membranes help filter germs and bacteria out so they can’t travel into the inner ear and other body parts. They also ensure that the air you breathe arrives in the lungs at the best levels of humidity and temperature possible. If the membranes can’t function normally, bacteria can enter the body through the nose more easily. And because the back of your nose is connected to the ear through the Eustachian tube, bacteria that enter through your nose can then accumulate in the deepest parts of the ear. Simply put, exposure to air conditioning and your ear, nose and throat health are closely connected.

What are the effects of air-conditioning on the ears, nose and throat?

Some of the side effects of air conditioning on the ear, nose and throat are bothersome in the moment, but others can lead to longer-lasting problems:

  • Dry eyes. As air-conditioning removes moisture from the air, it can also cause your eyes to become dry, especially if you’re positioned in front of the airflow.
  • Respiratory issues. Dry air can contribute to nasal blockages or dry throat.
  • Allergies and asthma. Accumulations of moisture in AC units present the possibility of mold growth. Then, when the AC is running, those spores are distributed into the air, triggering allergic or asthmatic reactions.
A man adjusting the AC temperature

Prevention is key

Never underestimate the importance of ear care. Your hearing might depend on it.

What are other potential effects of AC on your health?

Beyond your air-conditioner’s effects on your ear, nose and throat, there are correlations between air conditioners and your health that extend to other body parts . Extensive exposure to air conditioning can also lead to:

  • Dehydration. As air conditioners reduce humidity in your environment, they can also pull moisture from your skin, drying you out. And because you often feel less urge to drink in a colder environment versus a hot one, it’s easier to forget to stay hydrated.
  • Dry or itchy skin. The moisture pulled from your skin can leave you feeling dry and itchy.
  • Headaches. Dehydration reduces blood flow to the brain and can cause a headache.
  • Lethargy. Cold air can lead to sluggishness if the AC is at a temperature too low.

Not only does the dry air from your AC unit create greater possibilities for spreading bacteria in your ears and nose, but it can also cause ear pain. Sometimes, on exposure to an air conditioner, ear pain can occur due to a sharp temperature change. This pain stems from a Eustachian tube blockage that disrupts air pressure between the middle ear and nose. When the air pressure becomes lower in the middle ear than in the auditory canal, the eardrum will move inward and cause ear pain.

Air conditioning and ear pressure go hand in hand, affecting the sensitive tissues of your airways. Prolonged exposure to air-conditioning can lead to ideal conditions for developing a cold that subsequently blocks your Eustachian tube. The obstruction in the tube is usually due to the excessive production of catarrh or a build-up of mucus or phlegm in the nasal cavity. This build-up creates a sensation of blockage and difficulty hearing or breathing, making your cold seem much worse. In short, exposure to air-conditioning and clogged ears are tangentially related.

To resolve air-conditioning colds and clogged ears, try using decongestant medicines, nasal sprays, nasal washes with saline solution, or the Valsalva maneuver. If your cold persists, discuss your symptoms with your primary care physician.

Summer, with its common combination of swimming and hanging out in air-conditioned spaces, is a time ripe for another problem: otitis externa, also known as swimmer’s ear. This condition is caused by higher levels of humidity in the ears after spending time in water and not drying them properly, leading to bacteria growth.

While swimmer’s ear is one thing, the damage that AC causes to the mucus membranes (which usually help stop the spread of infection) means that the bacteria can spread further and more easily. While pain is the primary side effect of this condition, temporary hearing loss is possible because of some blockages caused by inflammation. 

In some very rare cases, the effects of air conditioning on ears, nose and throat can be drastic: Extensive exposure to air conditioning can cause sudden hearing loss due to inner ear inflammation. In most cases, the hearing loss will occur in only one ear and more often affects the ear that’s more directly exposed to the air conditioning vent or unit. This hearing loss might also come with tinnitus or dizziness.

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How to prevent air-conditioning concerns affecting your ears

While there are some potential negative side effects of using AC, there are ways to use your air conditioner healthily and safely. Here are some tips to protect your ears

  • Watch the temperature: Avoid setting the temperature lower than 72 degrees Fahrenheit (22 degrees Celsius), as colder air can affect your ears.
  • Turn off the AC at night: Your body temperature naturally drops when you’re asleep, and lower air temperatures can make you more vulnerable to negative effects.
  • Move away from the air conditioning: Don’t position yourself directly next to or under vents or AC units to avoid intense temperature changes and the direct, constant exposure that can dry out your membranes.
  • Schedule regular AC maintenance: Your AC unit should be checked regularly to make sure dust and debris aren’t accumulating in the machine and affecting the quality of the air in your space.
  • Conduct regular nasal washes: Catarrh in the Eustachian tube can plug your ears and cause ear pain and infections, so clean your airways with nasal washes to prevent and remove any debris.
  • Keep your ears dry: If your ears have been exposed to water, be sure to dry them carefully and completely before being exposed to air conditioning for long periods.
  • Monitor your baby’s temperature: Babies cannot regulate their body temperature in their first months, so pay special attention to major changes in temperature.
  • Drink up: Staying hydrated by drinking plenty of water helps offset the drying effects of air conditioning and the problems that stem from it.

Air conditioning for many people is a must-have for summer’s hottest days. By being aware of its potential side effects on your health and learning how to mitigate them, you can keep cool safely whenever the temperatures start to soar.

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One of the best ways to care for your ears and prevent hearing loss is to get them properly examined by a hearing professional. Find your nearest Miracle-Ear store to get started on your journey to better hearing.

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