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Can Office Air Conditioning Make You Sick?

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Raise your hand if you have a desk blanket.

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Even in the dead of winter, it can feel like your office’s air conditioning is running full blast. And it’s easy to blame that constant exposure to an industrial-strength arctic chill for the inevitable winter cold you pick up. The thing is, you’re not entirely wrong.

Most colds are caused by viruses, and viruses are stronger and more stable in cold air, so they tend to spread in that environment,” explains Janette Nesheiwat, M.D., medical director at CityMD in New York City. “For example, the virus that causes a runny nose, congestion, and upper respiratory infection symptoms, the rhinovirus, thrives in cold air.” And if you want to know where those germs are coming from, well, look around you: Especially in open-plan offices, you’re spending at least eight hours a day inside, surrounded by other people.

While you can’t directly prove air conditioning is to blame for your coughs, sniffles, or sneezes, the office AC system can be a related factor. “Constant cold exposure can suppress your immune system,” says Alyson Pidich, M.D., the medical director at the Ash Center of Comprehensive Medicine. Increased sickness symptoms in office workers and more frequent visits to ear, nose, and throat specialists have both been linked to AC use, too.

But here’s the thing: It’s not necessarily the AC’s temperature that’s to blame; it’s the ventilation in your office that can transmit the illness, Nesheiwat says. “The same microscopic organisms and pathogens that make you ill can also grow in AC units,” she explains. That’s because AC units generate moisture, which creates a breeding ground for mold and other organisms.

“The air circulation from an AC unit can also exponentially spread airborne viruses, like the flu and common cold, to more people that would normally be exposed from a sneeze or a cough,” Pidich says. (No wonder it can seem like your entire floor is sick at once.) Too much air conditioning can be especially harmful if the AC unit isn’t maintained and cleaned properly. “Filters can collect germs, dust, fungus, and bacteria,” Nesheiwat says. This can also lead to allergy flare-ups.

If you’re in a giant office with industrial AC pumping all day, every day, there’s not a ton you can do short of begging your building managers to raise the temperature. “The best thing you can do is not be in the direct flow of air,” Pidich says. “Have your desk moved. Block the vent. Drink warm tea or coffee. Anything to help increase your core body temperature.”

Of course, even if you can keep yourself warm, you can’t keep the guy next to you from coming into work with a cough. If you catch it, keep a bottle of Robitussin Honey on hand, which contains real, grade-A honey. It can help relieve your symptoms without wiping you out for the day. And keeping an extra sweater and some hand sanitizer at your desk isn’t a bad idea year-round, either.

Get more great health and wellness stories at MarthaStewart.com/Strive