Allergic to Air Conditioning Aboard an Airplane?

A rticles which I have written in the past at The Gate have covered passengers with allergies — such as those who are allergic to peanuts and nuts as two of many examples — but what I encountered on a recent flight was a new allergy to me.

Allergic to Air Conditioning Aboard an Airplane?

I sat in a seat by the window as passengers boarded the airplane; and although I wore a T-shirt, I was warm — so I opened the air vent above my seat.

A woman — who was dressed in an overcoat, a scarf and a wooly hat as if the weather emulated the middle of winter — sat next to me in the middle seat; and shortly after she sat down, she asked me something in a thick accent.

“I’m sorry — what did you say?” I asked.

“Do you need vent open? I am allergic to air conditioning.”

After sitting in my seat bewildered for a couple of seconds, I grudgingly closed the vent above me as I decided to sacrifice my comfort for hers. After all, she was sitting in the middle seat; and I believe that people seated in the middle seat are already at a disadvantage in terms of comfort. She did not say please during her request; nor did she thank me once I complied — but I attributed those oversights of politeness to a possible language barrier.

Fortunately, the duration of the flight was approximately 90 minutes; so what happened was really no big deal — but I could not help but wonder if people really can be allergic to air conditioning.

An Explanation?

“People who have a sensitive nose, who’re predisposed to allergies, those with compromised immune systems and those who’re already suffering from an infection, say, common cold, are especially prone to the ill-effects of air-conditioning,” according to this article written by Aparna Karthikeyan for The Hindu which quoted H. Ganapathy, who is a doctor and consultant ear, nose and throat surgeon at Apollo Hospitals in Chennai. “The symptoms of rhinitis precipitated by air-conditioners range from blocked nose, and repeated sneezing all the way to tonsillitis, pharyngitis, sinusitis and body-ache. ‘It can affect the quality of life,’ says Dr. Ganapathy. ‘If the nose is constantly blocked, you can feel sick and irritable, and your efficiency goes down. As for children, how can they play, study or attend school comfortably? So the important thing to do is identify why the symptoms occur.’”

From a number of sources which I have researched — the excerpt you just read being only one of them — it appears that people are not necessarily allergic to the air conditioning aboard an airplane itself; but rather, that it is a contributing factor towards exacerbating other allergies and other health concerns.

Summary

I do not necessarily know how the woman who sat next to me was exactly allergic to air conditioning — or, more importantly, from what she was actually suffering…

…but for me — at that moment, anyway — the right thing to do was to do what I can to ensure that she was more comfortable; and that was despite the marginal sacrifice of my comfort for the duration of the flight.

I usually try not to engage in the practice in ending an article with questions to prompt you to engage; but I am curious: are you allergic to air conditioning aboard an airplane — or have you encountered someone who is allergic to air conditioning aboard an airplane? Is there something more to this condition of which other readers of The Gate should know?

Photograph ©2016 by Brian Cohen.

13 thoughts on “Allergic to Air Conditioning Aboard an Airplane?”

  1. Physician says:

    The woman was likely suffering from Cold Urticaria. This is an actual condition where people can develop hives, rashes, and even welts when exposed to any kind of cold, and typically look like the middle of winter (as you described), to prevent from breaking out in serious rashes.

    1. Brian Cohen says:

      I appreciate the explanation, Physician; and I must admit that while I have heard of the condition known as Raynaud’s disease — a condition where the extremities of the body can be especially susceptible to cold but not considered an allergy — I have never heard of Cold Urticaria:

      http://www.mayoclinic.org/diseases-conditions/cold-urticaria/basics/definition/con-20034524

      I learn something new every day. Thank you for that information.

    2. Elena says:

      Yes this was my first thought as well. I suffer from cholinergic urticaria, which is the heat-caused version of this. Exercise, hot showers, certainly running to make a tight connection can cause me to break out in hives. I still travel quite a bit and have never had to ask a fellow passenger for accommodations, but I can imagine it with the cold version. Especially if she was dressed that way. Thank you for being kind to her.

  2. George says:

    I also have rhinitis. Sometimes, even a cold shower on a hot day can trigger the allergy response.

  3. MMB says:

    I get heat rash, so there would have been some sort of stand-off….

  4. Vikas says:

    I used to have this exact health problem the day after almost 90% of my flights. I would start with fever, body aches and then sneezing, blocked nose and throat infection. Had to take medicines and rest for cure. None of the doctors i consulted could point out that the allergy was due to the flying.
    I one day realised that this was happening usually after i would take a flight. Then i also realised that during most of the flights there would be a period in which i would feel extremely cold as if im wearing a tshirt in 10 deg C.
    Then onwards i started wearing a scarf and a woolen cap through the flights and this is working for me. It was a trial and error method.

    I do not know of any permanent cure to this problem yet or even what exactly is causing this.

    1. Peter says:

      I have exactly the same problem in the past years, whenever I took a flight I got sick the next day like you.
      Then I realised that it is because the air-conditioner. When I feel the air blowing on my neck then I have a strange cold feeling.

      Anyone knows a kind of prevention beside scarfs and hoodie?

      BTW I have the same problem for example in Las Vegas Casinos, I get sick of the airco. 🙁

      1. Vikas says:

        Till now i have no cure for this. I just try to avoid direct aircon blow where i can and in flights i wear a woollen cap and scarf.

  5. Dawn says:

    Yes, this is true. I don’t have a specific name for the allergy, but for me nothing to do with the cold air but the air quality itself. As I type these comments I am suffering with congestion, sneezing, runny nose and feeling as though I caught an instant cold after my flight today. I felt the initial tinkle in my right nostril shortly after boarding the plane today and started to sneeze. My allergist instructed me in the past to do the following just before boarding an airplane to prevent such symptoms. Use a prescribed nasal spray and saline spray as directed. There are times when the symptoms are short lived but today its been constant all day.

  6. Nataliya says:

    I am suffering right now. Sometimes it starts from a series of deep sneezes, but almost always I feels a period of painful dryness in my nose right before I start sneezing. Airplane air has very low relative humidity therefore I thought that the dryness of the air is the problem. I tried to use a water sprayer to make air more moist around me. Sometimes it helps to avoid or delay the symptoms of runny nose and congestion. Taking “over the counter” allergy medication prior to a flight as preventative measure could help also.
    But when allergy reaction starts it takes 2-3 days to get rid of, therefore I look forward to finding out how to prevent it from happening!

  7. Daniel says:

    I too have allergy issues. About 12 hours after touch down nasal drip and sneezing begins, followed by sinus blockage. The condition lasts for 7 to 12 hours and then goes away as quickly as it began. This condition develops consistently whenever I fly commercially. Several years ago I plugged in a window air conditioner which had not been used or cleaned in a few years. Unexpectedly, it blasted (and I inhaled) dirty air and mold from the old air filter and I became quite ill. My physician treated the condition with prednisone and it cleared up after several months. I wonder if the occurrence has left my respiratory system compromised and susceptible. Swimming in a chlorinated pool or lake, as well as sleeping out in a tent (dew on the ground) brings about a similar reaction as flying in a commercial airplane.

    1. Brian Cohen says:

      I am sorry to learn of your experience and your health issues, Daniel.

      I wish I can answer your question as to whether or not breathing in that dirty air and mold from that old air filter compromised your system — but perhaps a reader of The Gate who is qualified to answer that question can offer some insight…?

      Thank you for sharing that information.

  8. katrina dixon says:

    After returning from a seven week holiday that included many flights, I went straight to google to find out why I get extreme hay fever whenever on a plane..well nine time out of ten!! I too get a dry painful feeling in my nostril first, then a constant stream of sneezing watery eyes and nose follows. I’ve resorted to high potency antihistamine s and nasal spray before I fly, and although this helps,
    ( much to the joy of my fellow passengers), I can still feel it in my head. The first time I experienced it, it was so extreme that when stopped to refuel in hong Kong the flight staff had to escort me through customs to go to the chemist! I used to suffer from hayfever when I was young, however I grew out of it, but when I get a head cold my eyes and nose drip ( more like pour) water just Like an allergy, so I agree there must be some weakness there already…just nice to know I’m not the only one!

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