Got the sneezes and the sniffles? It could be caused by the air-conditioner

The temperature has dropped a notch; there's a hint of rain and more grey than blue in the sky. But the summer, at least in Chennai, is by no means over. Anytime now, the sun will be back from its sabbatical and the men from the Electricity Board will peer into your fuse box and shake their heads sadly. The air-conditioner, you see, does more than just overload the electricity grid. It often bungs up the nose, lines the throat with thorns and makes you feel miserable. At least that's what a friend, who sought respite from the wretched mugginess in an air-conditioned room, told me.

Susceptibility

She is, of course, hardly alone; legions of office-goers complain of headaches and stuffy noses when they wrap up work. Mums fret over their infants as they snuffle and snort all night in air-conditioned bedrooms; and the elderly talk fondly of a time when air-conditioners were unknown to humankind. And yet, though many people sleep in an air-conditioned environment, not everyone ends up with the sniffles. “It is a question of susceptibility,” says Dr. H. Ganapathy, consultant ENT surgeon, Apollo Hospitals, Chennai. “People who have a sensitive nose, who’re predisposed to allergies, those with compromised immune systems and those who’re already suffering from an infection, say, common cold, are especially prone to the ill-effects of air-conditioning,” he says.

The symptoms of rhinitis precipitated by air-conditioners range from blocked nose, and repeated sneezing all the way to tonsillitis, pharyngitis, sinusitis and body-ache. “It can affect the quality of life,” says Dr. Ganapathy. “If the nose is constantly blocked, you can feel sick and irritable, and your efficiency goes down. As for children, how can they play, study or attend school comfortably? So the important thing to do is identify why the symptoms occur.”

Cause and effect

Sleeping directly in a draught of air can compromise the airways, especially when there is an inherent block — either a blockage in the nose caused by a deviated septum or due to an infection such as a cold. But very often, when the air-conditioning filters have not been cleaned, if there are stuffed toys or pets in the room, pollen (from flowers/indoor plants), chemicals (mosquito repellents), or perfumes (aerosol room-fresheners), the symptoms can get aggravated in sensitive people.

Often, it’s people who work in centrally air-conditioned buildings, who complain frequently about rhinitis and infections. “In such buildings, if the air ducts are not cleaned regularly, it leads to what we call the ‘sick building syndrome’. Infections spread easily in a closed environment,” says Dr. Ganapathy. People susceptible to rhinitis are also advised not to frequently move between a hot, humid area and a cold, dry one. “The thermostat should ideally be set at 22 or 23 degree C; and it’s important to have humidifiers in place. When there is insufficient moisture in the air, the nose gets dry,” he says.

Several over-the-counter medications and nasal sprays can provide relief, although the benefits are short-lived. Besides, drugs are not a practical, long-term solution for a young boy/girl who develops allergic rhinitis. Steam inhalation is usually flogged as a good option, as it clears the nasal passage; but Dr. Ganapathy cautions against doing it when you have a bacterial infection, since it can carry the bacteria deep into the ear, leading to an ear infection.

“You have to find out the basic issue and treat that, not just the symptoms,” says Dr. Ganapathy. Typically, wait for a few days to see if the symptoms subside; if they do not run their course (as they would, if it were an infection), or you don’t feel any better in a week, you need to see a doctor. Identify if there are polyps or a deviated septum in the nose that is obstructing the free movement of air; find out if you’re allergic to dust/ mould/ smells and check if pollution is exacerbating your problem. Periodic maintenance of the air-conditioning filters is essential. If you can’t avoid the triggers of your allergy — i.e., if air-conditioning bothers you, but your place of work is fully air-conditioned — then you need to discuss with your doctor how best to alleviate your suffering.

With a/c now a necessity, these tips may be useful

* A/C maintenance is the crux of the issue. If the filters and ducts are cleaned regularly, it can minimise the problem.

* Maintain room temperature at a comfortable 22 or 23 degree C.

* Ensure there are humidifiers in A/C spaces.

* Keep out stuffed toys and pets from A/C bedrooms.

Dr. Ganapathy explains sinusitis

Imagine the nose is the main hall from which various rooms branch out. The rooms would be the sinuses. Air goes through the main hall and into the sinuses; mucous secreted there drains through the nose. When the nose gets blocked because of allergies, there is no ventilation and no drainage. So the sinuses, which should normally feel light (like a balloon filled with air) become heavy because of the trapped mucous. We then try to open the door by using anti-histamines or nasal sprays.