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.

33 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!

  9. Jill scott says:

    I have experienced very similar symptoms. Coming back from Bankock I started sneezing after the plane was sprayed with the insect spray. I sneezed solidly for the whole flight plus another 12hours once I got home. Ended up sitting with the crew. Used all the tissues on board. Horrible experience. Recently we flew back from Cyprus. No insect spray but 2hours into journey my nose started streaming and then the sneezing began. I also heard someone else on the flight sounding just like me. This time it only seemed to be affecting one nostril. I kept my hand up to my nose squeezing my nostrils together and breathing out of my mouth. Once we landed the symptoms disappeared within about an hour.
    I am going to NY in November and not looking forward to the flight. Do you have any ideas as to what I can do to stop this?
    I am 69 fit and healthy. I have also travelled many times both short/long haul with no problems. This sneezing problem has happened over the last 10 years or so.
    Looking forward to your response.

    1. Brian Cohen says:

      From where are you originating to get to New York, Jill scott?

      First, you need to determine as to whether or not you are actually allergic to the air conditioning aboard an airplane. As I am not a medical professional, I would consult with at least two doctors for their opinions. Be as specific as possible as you can with them pertaining to your experiences. They should be able to diagnose the source of your discomfort aboard the airplane — whether or not air conditioning is the cause — and may be able offer advice on what you can do to prevent your experiencing that discomfort; as well as prescribe you with medication, if necessary.

      I hope this helps, Jill scott. Please keep me updated on what you decide to do — as well as ask any other questions you may have.

  10. Tamie says:

    I just flew to and back from Oahu, from Portland, OR. As soon as the plane took off on our way there, my nose started running nonstop and I started sneezing like crazy all the way to Oahu. At first I thought I might have an allergic reaction to one of the snacks they gave us that had garlic in it as I am allergic to garlic but that was towards the end of the flight and this whole sneezing/runny nose thing started at take off. Still thinking it may be from food allergy, on the way back from Oahu, I was very careful not to eat anything with garlic in it and still had the same problem as soon as we entered the plane and all the way home. I used up a box or two the airline’s tissues. The flights were soooo draining and miserable!!! It took about 12 hours to clear up and I was still drained into the 2nd day after landing. That’s why I got online to see if this was a common problem and came across your blog. I don’t know if my condition was exasperated by the air conditioning or not but I would love to find out what caused it and what I can do to avoid this misery the next time I fly.

  11. Jandel says:

    I am so grateful to read this. The extreme sneezing, runny nose, and tearing is beyond annoying. It is unpredictable with me, in that on some flights, it happens and others it doesn’t. It almost always starts mid flight or near the end of the flight and then for the next 2 days I am miserable. I flew from NYC yesterday and am blowing my nose and mopping my eyes as I type this! I tried the antihistamine pre-flight trick, which doesn’t help. On other sites, I have read that perhaps it is caused by the cleaning fluids (as if they clean those things between flights: please!). The air vents are interesting because the air on planes is recirculated I believe, which means it is filled with all sorts of things (pollen, perfumes, dust, microscopic elements of grass and other fibers). Who knows? I am just gratified to know that I am not making this up (which I knew: I am a physician, although when I mentioned this to an allergist, he had no explanation). Going to try the “no open vent” experiment although I don’t hold out much hope, given that this is triggered by something in the air. Perhaps a mask, which feels silly, yet to avoid the misery of using up a box of tissues and having a raw nose for 2 days makes it worth it.

  12. Melinda Lester says:

    Yes I am suffering this too…on many flights I start to feel chilled an hour or so in and then my nose gets a strange tickle and then it’s on!!! Streaming dripping nose, a billion tissues, sneezing about 20 times, eyes watering and puffy eyelids and this lasts for about 24 hours after the flight! I am going to try the pre flight antihistame and nasal spray next time.

  13. Marcy says:

    Hi – count me in too! I’ve flown for decades without this problem. Last night on a 5 hour flight, I was convinced I had a terrible cold. Today – nothing but a mild left-over tickle. Something in that air caused my body to have a sudden and severe reaction. Very worrisome to think about that happening to people with asthma or similar problems.

  14. mark says:

    A friend of mine showed me your post after I posted on FB about how I feel like I’m the only one who deals with this every time I’m on a plane. Like many comments above, I go through a zillion tissues and have the worst sinus pain and ear pressure from the congestion and generally feel awful. It starts after an hour into the flight, worsens through the duration of the flight. It immediately begins to resolve when the flight is over and I’m completely back to normal in an hour or two. For me the symptoms are worse during winter flights and when flying away from Hawaii, which I assume is the result of a more extreme shift in humidity levels than when flying from a drier climate. I get intense sneezing fits when entering buildings with AC, but once acclimated, the problem goes away, so I don’t understand why it’s so much worse on the airplanes.

  15. Matthew says:

    Never fails every time. Depending on the flight time my sinuses clog and drip horribly. I suffer from allergies and usually use Flonase which works 100%. I am suffering right now due to a red eye and on my last 30m hop I was talking to the flight attendant about how I thought I was allergic to the jet fuel exhaust you sometimes get wiffs of coming in and out from the airport. She said oh maybe, but it’s probably the recirculated air they blow at you. I jokingly said ya, I doubt you guys use filters or like a HEPA filter. She just shook her head. So in conclusion I believe it’s the air full of mold in and germs in these heavily used aircraft. That and the recirculated farts.

  16. Zenzen says:

    I suffer from Cold Urticaria.
    It is a very rare and considerably extreme condition. I am that person who wears ski gear on a hot summer’s day and my airways are *immediately* triggered by cold air, food… ingesting or inhaling anything not hot. You literally cannot escape the trigger, even when being cautious, especially even on a hot day (air con – my arch enemy) so a flight is quite a scary undertaking.
    One of the biggest challenges and threats to personal safety in everyday life is that people don’t believe you or can’t grasp how serious it is. And you NEED (versus want) them to believe you because the people around you are your immediate allies when it escalates to a life-threatening situation. If you body starts trying to kill itself, it’s them that will need to alert the emergency services, or even stab your epi-pen. So we often have to ask in an incredibly direct and serious way (throwing in some manners certainly helps) but we cannot afford to risk our lives based on the other person’s willingness to believe you or not. Being direct and brief also stops that person from asking you a million questions (which strangely always come with some judgement and unsolicited advice) when really I’m just so exhausted concentrating on staying alive and doing whatever I’m doing at the time beyond having an illness.

    I’m so glad you put your own comfort aside as you literally could have been saving this person’s life. That was a really good call. Another reason for the lack of manners is that the person may have been allergic to the cold, yes. But that can entail so many other symptoms: unfathomable fatigue, gut issues, burning itching pain, hyper-adrenalin, fainting spells, palpitation and constant self-monitoring to ensure they’re in the ‘safety zone.Often the names of conditions just list one symptom.

    Thus, again, I’m glad your compassion shone through.

    1. Brian Cohen says:

      You comment was completely educational to me, Zenzen. Thank you so much for sharing, as I learned a lot.

      Please let me know what I can do to be of further assistance to you and others who suffer from Cold Urticaria.

  17. Irene says:

    I am also sensitive to cold air and some air-conditioners, especially in shopping malls where the air is cold (very cold to me) and especially if the air blows hard or directly on me. I immediately start a long bout of sneezing and then get very cold with goose bumps. This can be very embarassing, especially where you are in a group situation such as an airplane, church, symposiums, etc.
    I have been diagnosed with non-allergic rhinitis and am just so sick of having the sniffles, etc etc.
    On boarding a plane I try to get to my seat asap and quickly close all the air-con vents around my seat and redirect them away from my seat! Yes, that’s me! In an auditorium I quickly check where the air-cons are and make sure I sit far away from them.
    Believe me, it is not easy; closing windows, sitting in a hot office and wearing cardigans and always carrying tissues is not fun. But there is no cure, only preventive measures.

    1. Brian Cohen says:

      I wonder if being sensitive to cold air is actually different than being allergic to air conditioning, Irene.

      I say that only because I suspect more people may suffer from non-allergic rhinitis than we may think. Nasal sprays and decongestants are what doctors at the Mayo Clinic recommend:

      https://www.mayoclinic.org/diseases-conditions/nonallergic-rhinitis/diagnosis-treatment/drc-20351235

      I know people who are sensitive to cold air who do not have the sniffles. They suffer from Raynaud’s disease…

      https://www.mayoclinic.org/diseases-conditions/raynauds-disease/symptoms-causes/syc-20363571

      …and there is no known cure for that, either.

      I wish there was something I could do to help…

  18. Rey says:

    I too suffer from sinus issues when flying. I found what works for me to avoid symptoms of dry nostrils, sinus pressure/headaches, fatigue, chills, etc. is before my flight I am extremely proactive with preventative care. I take an antihistamine, ibuprofen to reduce sinus inflammation, use a saline nasal spray, remain hydrated (avoid diuretics—caffeine, alcohol, etc.), and also take vitamin C (Emergen-C) in addition to my daily multivitamins. The one last thing I do is wrap a scarf around my neck and then cover my mouth and nose throughout the duration of each flight so I don’t have to do what the lady did by asking you to shut off your vent. Took a round trip flight this week without any issues. I know it sounds like a lot but it’s not so bad especially compared to the symptoms awaiting me if I don’t do these things. Hope this helps someone!

  19. Robert says:

    I finally figured that the airplane air causes my allergies. I know I am allergic to certain kinds of perfumes and now believe that may be the reason for my allergic reactions every time I fly commercial. I used to be a business pilot and never had any problems with allergies, when flying. My problem started a few years ago, after I retired to Puerto Rico, so there may be a factor of change in humidity as well. Next flight I will try a mask and take Zyrtec before my flight.

  20. Shirley says:

    Packing to board a flight from Australia to an Asian country at the moment & I started wondering about my return flight. I have no problem domestic air travel, nor on any flight out of Oz; but the return flight from Asia is always hell. Doesn’t do it returning from other countries, but within about 20 mins into a flight from several Asian countries, I develop a severe allergic reaction. My eyes get so itchy, then stream. My nose just pours & sinuses become stuffed up & painful & I develop a headache. Fellow travellers have moved away (nice having a spare seat) because they thought I’d boarded while sick. I don’t have allergies or sinus normally, and this all clears within about 6 hours of landing. Glad to read this forum & know I’m not alone & not just allergic to returning home. Will try antihistamine & nasal spray, Thanks.

  21. LilMole says:

    I have a dust allergy which is triggered in hotels, planes and airports. Ut gets worse when the flight is taking off and then landing for some reason but can settle a bit whilst in the air. It’s really frustrating and I’m sure people think I’m sick and riddled with a cold. I take antihistamines but they don’t work for the air conditioning I encounter on my travels in the foresaid places. If anyone has any recommendations to make it better or stop it please let me know!

  22. Ruth Newman says:

    Thank you Shirley…above.
    I live in the U.K. I have just returned from Mauritius and am suffering allergic rhinitis which started several hours into the flight home. This has happened to me each time I have returned from Mauritius but not when I have flown to and from the USA or Europe.
    Many thanks to all contributors . I did think I was the only one with these problems. I will try the different ways to deal with it.

  23. Alexis V. says:

    I fly a lot and get sick each and every time unless I fly on Korean Air which maintains very clean airplanes. The last flight was yesterday from Europe to the US. Today I am sick with rhinitis. I took every precaution like a spray with a bit of cortisone in it, drank lots of water, kept away from drafts, took an antihistamine, started echinacea, and vitamin C to boost my immunity, but still got sick again. I think that it is the recycled air in most commercial airlplanes. Does anyone have
    anymore ideas as to what can be done to prevent this?

  24. DTom says:

    I am quite desperate to find a solution to ling haul travel and allergies. Over the years my allergy has got worse to the point that I came back from a long haul flight from Sinagpore and felt ill towards the end of the flight – body aches, constant sneezing, eye swelling, using all tissues and serviettes I could get hold of to mop up the water literally pouring from my eyes and nose. It has been 48 hours since landing and the allergy is lessening with the help of strong anti histamines but by no means over. I just don’t understand why it affects me so much and why each trip is affecting me more and more.

    I don’t get colds and very rarely even get ill. I am also very fit and very healthy. Generally have an allergy to dairy, air cons, wind, dust, smoke and flowers. Any help or advice would be welcome.

    1. Alexis V. says:

      I recently discovered two great products for these conditions: Similasan Nose Sinus Relief Nose Spray and something my Homeopath recommended called Silica 6x (four little dots every four hours for a couple of days. Hope these work for you and of course check with your doctor first.

      All best, Alexis

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