It’s Memorial Day and June is right around the corner -- for many, this is the time to really crank up the air conditioning. But is there a healthy way to get your heat fix outside, or to stay cool indoors? Here’s what you need to know:
If our bodies aren't acclimated to the sharp temperature rises this time of the year, that could leave some of us feeling ill, says Dr. David Claypool, M.D., an assistant professor of emergency medicine at the Mayo Clinic.
That's because temperature -- while not responsible for the "usual suspects" of disease like bacterial or viral infections -- can still affect how our bodies feel.
"Heat and cold affect physiology, and there's no question that heat can -- and does -- kill a person," Claypool tells HuffPost. Heat-related illnesses can range from heat cramps (which may occur when you exercise in the heat) and heat edema (swelling because of the temperature), to the possibly fatal heat stroke.
In general, our bodies do a pretty good job of acclimating to the heat, but we just have to give them the chance to adapt. The National Institutes of Health notes that while sweating is the body's way of cooling itself down, that may not be enough when the mercury inches higher than is comfortable.
If you know you're going to be spending an extended period of time outdoors in higher-than-normal temperatures, Claypool recommends exposing yourself to the heat in a way that's "moderate at first, so that you're not causing heat illness," he says.
The very young and the very old are particularly susceptible to extreme fluctuations in temperature, and may be at higher risk for heat-related illness. That's because these two groups' defense mechanisms are either immature -- with the young ones -- or worn out -- with the elderly -- thereby making them less resilient to extreme temps.
Little ones also might not be aware of the signs of heat illness and don't have the knowledge to stop and go to a cooler place. And the elderly may be on medications that could cause them to feel ill if they are in extreme heat, he added.
The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention advises that when you're outside in the heat, you make sure to get plenty of fluids even if you're not exercising, and replenish salt and minerals in your body as you sweat them out (this can be done by drinking a sports beverage, though people on a low-salt diet should talk with their doctor before doing this).
In addition, it's important to wear clothing that shields the skin from the sun's ultraviolet rays, which can burn the skin, and to only go outdoors when the temperatures aren't at their extreme highs, the CDC says. Don't overdo it -- if you're feeling unwell while exercising outside, make sure to stop to get rest in the shade.
To keep safe inside in the air conditioning and out of the heat, make sure the AC is running properly and the filters are kept clean. For some people who have asthma or who are allergic to mold, an AC that isn’t working properly could spur mold growth and make their conditions worse, says Dr. Andy Nish, M.D., of the Allergy and Asthma Care Center in Gainesville, Ga.
A study in the Indoor Air Journal showed that improperly maintained air conditioning systems -- particularly humidification systems in poor condition and dirty cooling coils and drain pans -- can increase the risk for a number of health conditions, including headaches and problems with the upper respiratory system, eyes, skin and concentration.
“Symptoms may be due to microbial exposures from poorly maintained ventilation systems and to the greater levels of vehicular pollutants at air intakes nearer the ground,” the researchers wrote in that study.
However, health problems are not typically an issue with well-maintained systems, Nish noted.
In general, air conditioning is actually good for people with these sorts of conditions because “the systems filter pollen and other allergens out of the air and serve to control the humidity, at least to some extent,” Nish told HuffPost in an e-mail.
A 2010 study in the Journal of Allergy and Clinical Immunology explored the effects of different air conditioning systems, and researchers of that study say that while the research is not yet conclusive on whether air conditioning can actually prevent disease, some studies have shown a benefit particularly for breathing and for reducing harmful particulate matter.
“The principal role of air cleaning and ﬁltration in the living environment for those with allergic respiratory diseases might relate more toward the reduction of disease progression rather than a ‘treatment,’” researchers wrote in that study, though they did note that it's not reasonable to expect health problems to go away just by changing an air filter if those issues are caused by "prolonged exposures either in the home, other environments, or both."
For people with asthma or allergy to mold, Nish suggests regularly changing AC filters and using electrostatic filters that trap allergens.
“While it definitely adds some cost, adding a HEPA filter to an A/C unit will filter out even more allergens,” he says. “And also consider a dehumidifier, with the aim to keep humidity 40 to 45 percent, which limits the growth of dust mites and molds, while not making the air too dry.”
And for people without a respiratory condition, Nish says that well-working air conditioning units generally don’t pose any health risk.
In fact, research has shown that air conditioning is linked with positive health outcomes among people who have been hospitalized. A 2010 study in the American Journal of Epidemiology showed that air conditioning use was associated with more positive health outcomes among people hospitalized for a variety of conditions in California between 1999 and 2005.
“These results demonstrate important effects of temperature on public health and the potential for mitigation,” the researchers wrote in that study.
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