Sneezing. Cough. Sore Throat. Headache. No, we’re not talking about the symptoms often tied to cold, flu, or COVID. You may experience these symptoms when you turn on your heater during the colder months. “Some people, such as those with allergies to molds or with asthma, may have more intense reactions,” explains the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC). “Severe reactions may include fever and shortness of breath,” their experts add. If you’ve ever experienced these symptoms and they coincide with the timing of when you turn your heater on, there are several ways to address the problem.
“This is the time of year my phone starts to ring off the hook,” Jeffrey C. May, principal of J. May Home Inspections and author of My House Is Killing Me: The Home Guide for Families with Allergies and Asthma, explains. May shares that many homes provide ideal conditions for mold spores to grow, including its three main requirements—oxygen, moisture, and a food source. “Most people don’t even know they have a problem until they start getting sick,” he added. It won’t necessarily be obvious if there is mold growing in your home. But, if symptoms persist after a thorough dusting and cleaning, look to your HVAC system.
One source shares that common symptoms of “heater sickness” include:
- Sore Throat & Coughing: Dry air plus bacteria from your air vents can dry out your throat and nasal passages.
- Itchy Nose & Sneezing: You can be breathing in the dust, pollen, mold, and other allergens that surged into your air ducts during spring, summer, and fall. These particulates can cause nasal irritation and sinus congestion.
- Headaches: These are frequently caused by breathing in fungi, mold, and dust and the smells they produce. Malfunctioning furnaces can also leak small amounts of carbon monoxide, which can have a similar effect. This is also a reason to have carbon monoxide detectors in your home, as the gas is odorless and colorless, and can otherwise not be detected.
- Itchy and/or Watery Eyes: Another allergic reaction from dry air and dust.
- General Discomfort: If your heating system is on the fritz, it could heat some rooms better than others, causing alternating warm and cold conditions. The dryness caused by the heat can also make you feel dehydrated.
Mold can grow inside the ducts of your heating system, but sources share that it’s most often found inside the coil and fiberglass lining of your HVAC unit. That’s because these areas are most likely to collect dust and are easily exposed to moisture. Yearly inspections of your heating unit are recommended to keep it in tip-top shape, and that includes having the technician clean and potentially replace parts that show signs of mold.
How to counteract heater illness
Most of us inevitably need to turn on the heater during the winter months, but that shouldn’t mean that most of us need to experience seasonal discomfort as a result of the heaters. There are several ways to prevent and counteract “heater illness”
Use a humidifier
Using a humidifier is a great way to improve your air quality. It can help prevent dry sinuses- which can lead to a stuffy nose and cough. The catch? It can do more harm than good if you don’t maintain the unit. According to the Consumer Product Safety Commission, you may experience flu-like symptoms or lung infections by running a poorly maintained machine. It must be cleaned regularly (weekly is best) to prevent bacteria and mold from developing. Read the user manual for the unit to learn the best cleaning methods.
Plants not only add to the aesthetic of your home, but they can be a huge factor in the quality of air you breathe in daily. Like we shared in this past post about plants, they can remove toxins such as carbon dioxide, formaldehyde, bacteria, and spores. Plants are incredibly effective in producing oxygen and filtering out particles, with studies finding that 6-8 snake plants can fill an airtight room with enough oxygen to breathe normally.
Change your filters
This is one of the easiest, yet most forgotten, methods to improve your home’s air quality. Make it easy and set a reminder in your calendar so you don’t forget when it’s time to change the filter. Choosing an air filter (read our post here, on how to pick the best filter for your home) shouldn’t be an afterthought. Different qualities, materials, and the required replacement period should all be considered when choosing which filter to add to your HVAC system.
Add an ultraviolet air cleaner
Ultraviolet air cleaners strip your HVAC system of mold before it gets a chance to circulate anywhere in your home. This creates clean, pure air for you and your family to breathe in. The air cleaner works directly with your system or ducts and uses ultraviolet light to neutralize any mold spores and prevents them from regrowing in the future. As mold and bacteria often grown within HVAC systems in places we can’t reach for regular cleaning, it may be a valuable tool to add if you and your family are experiencing symptoms of “heat illness”.
Have your HVAC unit checked seasonally
We know, it’s an added expense when nobody needs one. But, it can be the difference between having a warm, cozy home, or feeling sick when you’re in your house. Not only does it help with your comfort and health, but regular maintenance of your system helps catch any issues to where you can address them early on, rather than being surprised with a large repair down the line. There’s nothing worse than trying to start up your system for the season and realizing it doesn’t work. Many HVAC companies also offer discounts on seasonal checks (as do most home warranties), so call around and see what deals are available.
If you experience symptoms of “heater illness” take the time to investigate whether your HVAC unit could be the source. There’s no need to suffer through the season when some tweaks to your environment can address the issue and have you breathing comfortably.