Can portable A/C's (and particularly low BTU portables) cause headaches?
June 21, 2011 9:57 AM   Subscribe

Portable/window air conditioners appear to give me headaches, particularly air conditioners with low BTU, while I am unaffected by central air conditioning. Is this possible?

I live in a pretty hot place and have noticed the last few summers that window air conditioners and the little portable air conditioners seem to cause me splitting headaches, while central air conditioning feels fine.

The headaches develop slowly (over the course of 30 min), so it isn't going from hot to cold. I don't think they are caused by dehydration (I keep well hydrated). We just bought a new portable unit and I am still having the same problem, so I don't think it is contaminants in the unit.

I don't generally do well in heat in any case, but I have noticed that I don't seem to get the same headaches with higher-BTU portable units and central air.

I'm trying to figure out whether if this is even possible, or if I'm imagining things and my headaches are unrelated. I'm particularly curious whether low-BTU a/c's might be more likely to cause headaches, because that seems like a particularly suspicious conclusion on my part.

posted by arnicae to Health & Fitness (12 answers total)
I don't understand what you're asking.

You say you get headaches when it's hot out and lower BTU air conditioners don't cool places as well as higher BTU air heat is still causing you headaches. The power of the air conditioner is incidental to the question of where your headaches are coming from.

Sorry if I'm missing something here but it sounds like you've answered your question: heat gives you headaches and your air conditioners are not powerful enough to remove the heat. So....get more powerful air conditioners.
posted by dfriedman at 10:04 AM on June 21, 2011

I don't have any answers for you, but I also get headaches from in window a/cs but I am fine with central air.
posted by ridiculous at 10:15 AM on June 21, 2011

Purely speculation, but maybe you could test out being in the room with earplugs in. It's possible that the small air conditioners are producing noise at a frequency that is particularly insulting to you.
posted by the jam at 10:22 AM on June 21, 2011 [1 favorite]

small units have crappy air filter screens that are rarely cleaned by the owners. Can easily aggravate sinuses.
posted by k5.user at 10:23 AM on June 21, 2011

I get headaches and the sniffles from window units and A/C in the car, but I am just fine with central air units. This hasn't always been the case, though, as central air units use to also give me the same symptoms when I was a child.
posted by TinWhistle at 10:25 AM on June 21, 2011

I can have the same symptoms, also with some car AC (so I wind up driving with the AC on and the windows open). I think it's an allergy response, but I really don't know what to. Maybe it's the recirculated air?
posted by carter at 10:39 AM on June 21, 2011

I haven't noticed this as a portable AC/central AC thing, but I definitely do feel like if the air conditioning is on but it's still not cool enough for me, I feel super gross (more nauseous and suffocated than headachey), much worse than I would feel if I were just in the same temperature outside or in a room with open windows and fans. I usually have to set the AC several degrees colder than what would be a comfortable temperature for me in a non-air-conditioned room.
posted by mskyle at 10:51 AM on June 21, 2011

Could it be a noise thing? Window units tend to have a high pitched whine when the compressor is on.
posted by yarrow at 12:14 PM on June 21, 2011

Central air conditioners are much better at filtering air than window A/Cs. The filters in window A/Cs are made out of a different material than those in central A/C (at least the ones I've seen). In window A/Cs, the filter is generally a mesh of plastic or aluminum, that IS MEANT TO BE WASHED periodically. In central A/C, the filter is usually non-woven polyester, and they are meant to be periodically removed when dirty, and replaced with a new one. Central A/C is likely to have a much more efficient filter than a window unit, particularly a small (probably cheap) window unit. Read more about filters here. Central A/C may even have a HEPA filter; I've never seen anything approaching HEPA-standard even in a high end window A/C.

If you spend time around a particular window A/C unit, investigate the filter; wash it very well, or replace it. A unit with a dirty filter could very easily be filling the room with mold and other allergens, making the air dirtier than it would be with the A/C off.

Window units are generally "maintained" by homeowners who pay little attention to icky, picky things like cleaning the filter; central A/C units are more apt to be maintained by a technician who understands the importance of a clean filter, and whose job it is to change it. So, on average, home units are quite likely to be neglected, while central A/C in public or commercial spaces is more likely to have a clean, new-ish, functioning filter.
posted by Corvid at 1:21 PM on June 21, 2011 [1 favorite]

Try a swamp cooler. SoCal is an ideal climate for evaporative cooling and I prefer the atmosphere and lots of fresh air they provide, despite living in a much hotter part of SoCal than shown on your profile.
posted by buggzzee23 at 1:36 PM on June 21, 2011

A low BTU air conditioner will dry the heck out of the air. See if you can find a humidity meter, or get a can of cold beverage, and see how much condensation it gets. Or feel the cold coils of the ac unit and see if they feel moist. They should, or else the air has had all the moisture pulled out of it.

Other possibility: there is mold/pollen/etc in some air conditioners that you are exposed to, and they happen to be the low btu units.
posted by gjc at 7:52 PM on June 21, 2011

Check to see it the window air conditioner has a drip pan at the bottom. The drip pan collects water from the A/C and can grow mold. If it's somewhere you're going to be a lot, lift out the drip pan and clean it with bleach or anti-bacterial soap. Let it sit for a few minutes to make sure it kills as much off as possible.

Central Air, at least ours with a heat pump, has a pipe that puts the water outside by the compressor. It might not bother you because the moisture the mold needs to grow is now outside.
posted by stray thoughts at 2:44 AM on June 22, 2011

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