Is my space heater making me sick or am I just unlucky this year?
January 2, 2013 11:32 AM   Subscribe

I know YANMD, but I am wondering if anyone has been told to cease using a space heater due to chronic pharyngitis or similar illnesses?

I have always been a fairly healthy individual but I always come down with ONE fairly awful upper respiratory infection/cold/hay fever/bronchitis when the weather changes in the spring and autumn. That much is predictable. However, this autumn, starting around the beginning of October and ending (hopefully) in early December, I've sick 3 times with, what could have been, chronic pharyngitis or sinus infections/upper respiratory infections that have lasted at least a week or more each. It is also possible I caught every strand of rhinovirus out there within the period of a month because I have been told that this was a particularly brutal year for such things. No one knows. Much like an A student who receives a string of Bs, my initial thought is that "this doesn't happen to ME" so I began looking for possible causes. I am starting to suspect my space heater as a culprit for various reasons.

The first time I came down with the typical symptoms: sore throat, nasal congestion, headache, sneezing, etc. I let it pass without visiting a doctor. Not even a few days after feeling "better" I relapsed fairly harshly after waking up with what felt like a softball lodged in sinus cavity, a sore throat, nasal congestion, headache, and the NEW symptom of blood in my post nasal drip. I finally visited an immediate care clinic and they sent me away with my first ever zpac for pharyngitis (inflammation of the throat). I have no evidence that the zpac was actually necessary or effective because these bouts of illness typically last a week or so regardless, but that is neither here nor there. A few weeks later I woke up yet again with the same symptoms and finally decided to find the cause.

I have not been sick since the 4th of December, but I am thinking there are three things that could have caused this stubborn bouts of illness. Again, still no official diagnosis other than pharyngitis the one time, and every observation below is dreadfully post hoc, but here goes anyway!

1. The vigorous use of a space heater before the onset of symptoms, both at home and in my office. I had stopped using the space heater at home and the office and felt pretty fine over my holiday break. Today I returned to my office and decided to run the heater again because it is flipping freezing in here and I started to feel rather headachey/itchy in the throat almost immediately. Could the abrasive heat from these contraptions be affecting my upper respiratory system? Is this even a thing that happens?

2. Running 3 miles every night in cold weather could also be a factor. I wouldn't run during the illness but after feeling "better" I would start running again and then symptoms returned.

3. It is possible that it has just been a frankly shitty cold and flu season and everyone is getting sick repeatedly and I am no exception. I have been told this by multiple sources, but again my reaction is "But I don't get sick!"

I know my illnesses could probably a combination of all three (and the added bonus of working full-time plus teaching on the side) and I should talk to a doctor about this. I will if it continues for a 4th time but I really just want to know if anyone has had a similar experiences and if their doctor recommended scrapping their space heaters? If and when I do visit the doctor should I even bring it up as a concern? Or perhaps I shouldn't use my exercise or space heater as a scapegoat (because I really like it, my office is cold always) and just cope with the fact that my case is the same as a vast majority's this year? Thanks always!
posted by Young Kullervo to Health & Fitness (13 answers total) 2 users marked this as a favorite
Could be the dryness caused by the space heater and cold weather in general. I like to use a warm mist humidifier to keep the sinuses and throat happy during particularly cold times in the winter.
posted by PJMoore at 11:41 AM on January 2, 2013 [1 favorite]

A space heater will dehumidify the room, and dry air can be irritating to the sinuses and throat. However, I don't think it would provoke symptoms within 5 minutes.
posted by COD at 11:41 AM on January 2, 2013

Yeah, I don't see how a space heater could make you sick like that, but they do definitely dry the air. Try a humidifier, but put some vinegar in it to prevent mold from forming, because then you would have a situation which might cause illness.
posted by rabbitrabbit at 11:45 AM on January 2, 2013

Best answer: A forced-air heater space heater will be worse for your membranes than a radiator-style one. I always recommend people get radiator-style ones (for both respiratory health and safety reasons).
posted by kalapierson at 11:46 AM on January 2, 2013 [1 favorite]

Pharyngitis is a symptom, not a diagnosis per se. It's a fancy medical term for sore throat. The actual diagnosis in cases like this sounds like upper respiratory infection, most likely a viral upper respiratory infection.

As others pointed out, space heaters dry out the air and so can be irritating to mucous membranes, but I'd also like to point out that using space heater in an inadequately ventilated area can pose a risk for carbon monoxide poisoning (however, this is mainly associated with headache and not with nasal congestion or sore throat which again, suggest a URI).
posted by treehorn+bunny at 11:46 AM on January 2, 2013

You fail to specify the brand(s) or even the type(s) of space heater(s) involved.
posted by jamjam at 11:48 AM on January 2, 2013

People tend to get blood from the nasal cavity or throat simply from mechanical irritation from the dry air/chronic cough/nose blowing etc.
posted by treehorn+bunny at 11:49 AM on January 2, 2013 [1 favorite]

Best answer: 3. It is possible that it has just been a frankly shitty cold and flu season and everyone is getting sick repeatedly and I am no exception. I have been told this by multiple sources, but again my reaction is "But I don't get sick!"

I was sick from the beginning of November until the second week in December with recurring bouts of chest-crud. I was not alone in this - it leveled a significant chunk of my workplace. It's just really, really, really bad this year. Worse, what I thought was a virus turned out to be a bacterial sinus infection - a single Z-pack killed it dead, and I was completely recovered by the week before Christmas after more than a month of off-and-on "colds."

It's shittier than usual. Talk to your Doc if it keeps popping up, or just won't go away completely.
posted by Slap*Happy at 11:56 AM on January 2, 2013 [1 favorite]

Best answer: A space heater will dehumidify the room, and dry air can be irritating to the sinuses and throat. However, I don't think it would provoke symptoms within 5 minutes.

That is not exactly correct. All things being equal, the amount of humidity in the air will not change when you run a space heater. However, the relative humidity will drop. That is, warmer air can hold more water vapor than colder air. This means that warmer air will suck up more moisture than cooler air.

Also, your nasal passages use the temperature to regulate how much moisture they put out. That's why your nose runs when you are outside in the cold- it's dumping moisture into your nose to humidify the air you inhale. So when the air is hot and dry, your passages dry out, become irritated and that makes your nasal passages much more susceptible to viruses.
posted by gjc at 11:56 AM on January 2, 2013 [2 favorites]

Best answer: Yes, dry air is indeed a risk factor for colds and flus. It can also cause headachey/itchy sensations because it dries out your mucus membranes.

The space heater and/or fan could also be sending up a lot of dust - are you allergic?
posted by en forme de poire at 11:59 AM on January 2, 2013

Response by poster: Hi, sorry for the lack of specifics, and thank you for the responses thus far. They are enlightening.

I use only electric space heaters, so I am in no risk of carbon monoxide poisoning as far as I know. I am super paranoid about CMP and have a monitor at home, but thanks for the suggestion! CMP is scary as hell.

I suppose if you must know the one in my office is a forced-air, Sylvania heater Model: FH902T, for what it is worth. It is fairly new, first purchased in October of last year. It is small and sits on my desk so it is basically right in my face. I keep it on a low setting and typically turn it off during the warmest parts of the day.

Probably a bad idea based on your responses.

The space heater and/or fan could also be sending up a lot of dust - are you allergic?

I AM horribly allergic to dust so that is also a possibility. I keep this place fairly dust free on a regular basis for that reason but who knows what lurks in crevices I cannot reach around this desk. I also have a lot of pet dander at home that I try to control (how effectively is another question), specifically in the room with the space heater.
posted by Young Kullervo at 12:08 PM on January 2, 2013

Since you haven't been sick for approximately a month, it seems that the action with the lowest cost (in terms of time and effort) would be to keep your space heaters as they are until and unless you have more evidence of a significant and ongoing problem.

Teaching exposes you to lots of new and exciting germs. In your position, I would carry hand sanitizer and use it whenever I have contact with people or the things that they touch (doorknobs, pens, shared computers, public transportation, money) and again before drinking, eating, or touching my face for any reason. You can also try washing your hands and changing your clothes upon returning home from teaching.

The cheapest way to carry sanitizer with you is to buy a large container and then a small container and refill the small container for when you're out and about.
posted by the young rope-rider at 1:09 PM on January 2, 2013

Response by poster: Thanks everyone for the information/advice! From what I can tell, it seems that I MAY be (MAY, without conclusive evidence, but it all seems logical) compromising my upper respiratory system by drying out my sinuses excessively via the space heater and then running in the cold, leaving me vulnerable to infections. Also stock up on hand sanitizer (already on it).
posted by Young Kullervo at 6:26 PM on January 2, 2013

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