home heating and your health

Heating Your Home and Health Consequences

You might have central heating, radiators, a fireplace, or one of the many different types of room heaters that are available in the market. When the weather turns cold outside, it is extremely tempting to turn up the heat inside your home, but while these heat sources are a quick and easy means of staying warm, it is also true that they come with their own set of health hazards. From simple issues such as dry skin and nosebleeds to serious issues like migraines, brain damage and suffocation, here are some reasons for you to bring down the heat in your home.

Thermostats on central heating systems are now, by default, set higher than ever before. This has led to a rise in convection currents (air movement), leading to a dry atmosphere associated with dry skin conditions, allergies, respiratory issues and so much more that we are going to explore in this article.

Using a humidifier is a good strategy to bring back some moisture and ease congestion and other issues caused by allergies and dry air. But if they are not cleaned and maintained properly, humidifiers can lead to a condensation effect – adding extra moisture and promoting the growth of mould and mildew. In addition, emissions from uncleaned humidifiers can have detrimental effects for many users, especially those prone to allergies and asthma.

Reasons Why You Should Turn Down the Heat

1.   Excessive Dryness: It is not just the cold weather that leads to skin dryness in winters. Room heaters tend to suck up all the natural moisture present in the air. Running such heaters burns up the oxygen and lowers the humidity level, especially in the case of halogen or fan-based convection room heaters. This can make your skin quite dry. For people with sensitive skin, it can mean itchiness and redness as well as increased risk of infection.

Central heating can make your eyes dry and gritty too. Dry atmosphere created by indoor heating causes loss of moisture from the eyes. Your eyes have a natural layer of tears that keeps the cornea (surface of your eyes) moist. This layer also keeps dust, debris and even microorganisms at bay, keeping your eyes moist and free of dirt and infections.

Dry air also causes chapped lips, which can give rise to oral diseases.

Severe dryness can also lead to nosebleeds and rashes in babies and young children as well as sinusitis in adults. This happens because the mucus in the nasal passage dries up and starts to resemble thick glue. This, in turn, can be quite discomforting and cause bleeding or painful cheeks. Low humidity can irritate the nasal lining and trigger allergies or make your symptoms worse.

2.   Respiratory Ailments: Winter is a month when you are already dealing with increased bouts of flu and seasonal allergies. A dip in temperature is linked with sensitive airways but turning up your central heating can also add to the burden of allergies and respiratory issues. Heated indoor spaces dry out the air, which saps moisture and oxygen. This can leave you struggling with coughs, allergies and other respiratory issues.

Central heating and humidifiers have been listed as some of the main triggers for asthma. [1] Heating up your homes in addition to a lack of ventilation creates an environment for irritants and allergens like dust mites and bed bugs to thrive, which are well-known asthma triggers. Experts warn that people suffering from asthma or any other respiratory issue must consider their indoor trigger and opt for heating devices that shouldn’t aggravate it, such as combustion fires or un-ventilated gas heater.

A study published in the “Annals of the American Thoracic Society” found that using indoor heating in warmer months may aggravate chronic obstructive pulmonary disease, or COPD symptoms. [2] COPD is a cluster of lung disorders marked by symptoms such as persistent cough, wheezing, shortness of breath and chest tightness. (Chronic bronchitis and emphysema are two main types of COPD).

While vent-free heaters come with a built-in chimney to ensure adequate ventilation, unvented heaters can emit gases, such as carbon monoxide, into the air and raise the toxicity levels in the immediate surroundings. Carbon monoxide poisoning is possible if you have a fireplace that uses wood or coal. Such pollutants can cause or aggravate respiratory infections and conditions such as asthma. It can also trigger headaches and migraines. In infants, it can even lead to brain or organ damage. Low levels of oxygen can cause suffocation too.

3.   Weakened Immune System: Since the temperature outside the heated space will be significantly lower, it will take your body some time to become acclimatized to the sudden change. Such fluctuations in temperature have an adverse impact on the immune system and weaken it, causing frequent bouts of cold and flu.

4.   Headaches and migraines: Nowadays, homes and commercial buildings have become completely dependant on central heating and ventilation and air-conditioning (HVAC) systems. This has resulted in increased exposure to pollutants such as carbon mono-oxide particulate matter and volatile organic compounds. Poor air quality is known to aggravate headaches and migraines. [2]

5.   Rise in Blood Pressure: Frequent and abrupt variations in body temperature when you move from hot to cold can lead to a spike in your blood pressure. This sudden effect makes your arteries contract, reducing the flow of the blood to the heart. This can cause heart attacks, angina pain, or abnormal heart rhythm.

6.   Weight Gain: Yes, you read that right! Overheating your home can lead to weight gain. When the weather is cold, it triggers the ‘brown fat’ in our body, which is useful in burning calories. If the heat inside your home is too high all the time, this does not happen, and all those calories start accumulating. Ideally, the temperature inside your home should be between 15C and 17C for at least a few hours each day.

7.   Blood Vessel Spasms: It doesn’t matter how tempting it is to warm your cold hands on the radiator in your room it is best if you don’t, as it can cause blood vessels to go into temporary spasms and restrict blood supply to your hands. This can result in your fingers turning white, then blue, and finally red. It is a serious problem for those suffering from Raynaud’s Syndrome.

8.   Sleepless Nights: Quite a few room heaters tend to be noisy and can make unwanted noises all through the night. This can disturb your sleep at night. Failure to rest well overnight can give rise to health issues such as headaches, migraines, fatigue, stress, anxiety and have an adverse impact on overall functioning of the body. Also, night sweats, dry mouth, and dehydration can occur when the room gets overheated as a result of leaving the heater on throughout the night.

9.   Risk of Burns: If you believe there is no risk of burns just because your room heater is enclosed within a case, you can’t be more wrong. If the enclosure is made of a non-metallic material, it can heat up quickly and severely burn you if you accidentally touch it. Any accidental contact with most heaters can give you bad burns. Kids and pets are more prone to getting such burns if you are not careful enough.

10.   House Fires: Heaters are one of the leading causes of home fires. They can cause fires when flammable objects such as clothes, curtains, paper or paper products are left unattended near them. Nothing should be placed atop the heater even when it is not being used. It is easy to forget this and switch on the heater leading to a small fire which has the potential to turn into a major house fire.

Precautions When Using Heaters

Certain circumstances might require you to get an indoor heating system for your home. If you must use heating for unavoidable reasons, the least you can do is ensure that your heating system is well-maintained and handled in the proper manner. You can do this by taking precautions such as:

  • Inspecting the Heater – It is likely that you have put your heater in storage during the warmer months. So, be sure to check it for damage before switching it on for the first time every winter. Clean and dust the heater well and ensure that the wires are in good condition.
  • Following Instructions – Use the heater according to the manufacturers’ instructions and read all the warning labels before you plug it in. This applies to new as well as old heaters that you are using.
  • Cleaning and Changing Air Filters – Dirt and dust can clog up the air filters in your indoor heating system causing it to become inefficient and malfunction often. The filters have also accumulated dust, fungus and all kinds of allergens during the period of inactivity. Using your HVAC system without cleaning the filter can emit these allergens into your environment, leading to unwanted health outcomes. Cleaning the air filters on a regular basis, maybe once a month or so, can prevent this from occurring.
  • Keeping the Vents Clean – Clean vents will to help ensure adequate air flow through the heating system, and is essential to ensure its efficient functioning.
  • Calling in the Professionals – Get an annual maintenance check done by a qualified HVAC technician as this can help you catch any problems well before they turn into a major issue.
  • Install a Carbon Monoxide Alarm – If you use a heater that produces carbon monoxide, then it can be helpful to have an alarm that warns you in case of a leak. Inhaling carbon monoxide for an extended period is extremely dangerous and can even prove fatal for some. Also, keep an eye out for symptoms of carbon monoxide poisoning such as dizziness, nausea, and headaches.
  • Use It Prudently – Turn off the heater when it is not in use, particularly when you are going out of the house. Also, do not plug electric heaters into the same power point as any other electrical appliance to avoid overloading that socket.
  • Better Safe – If your room heater has any problem and a professional technician suggests replacing it, do not ignore the suggestion. It is better to spend a little money and get a new heater as to risking the health and lives of your dear ones.

Minimizing the Effects of Room Heaters

There are some further steps that you can take to keep the dangerous consequences of misusing heaters to a minimum. They are:

  • On a regular basis, place a bowl of water in the room to replenish the moisture in the air. This will help increase the humidity levels and prevent health problems such as skin dryness, nose bleeds, and sinusitis. Introducing some indoor plants throughout your home will also have the same effect.
  • Ensure that you drink plenty of fluids to stay hydrated all day long.
  • Install a programmable thermostat to help control the temperature as well as humidity of your home. This can make your heating system energy-efficient while minimizing the associated health risks. Remember, you also need to keep a tab on the levels of humidity as it can give rise to mould and yeast, meaning more allergies and respiratory distress.
  • Keep the heater away from the reach of elderly persons, children, and pets who might accidentally come in direct contact with it leading to burns or electric shocks.
  • Air the room regularly by opening the doors and windows of the rooms in your house/apartment on a regular basis, even during peak winter, to ensure there is adequate air circulation and sufficient ventilation. It is also a good way of eliminating pollutants and cleaning the room naturally.

The use of heaters might be inevitable if you live in a place where adverse weather conditions prevail for an extended period. Following these safety measures and adopting precautions can go a long way in minimizing the damage that heat can do to your health. And if you live in a place where winter is not as severe and does not last long, then you might be able to do away with room heaters altogether.  Just ensure that you dress warmly even when inside the house and do not rely on a heater, especially for long periods of time such as through the night or all day long. Using layers of clothing will help you adjust to the temperature by adding or removing items of clothing when required.

References:

  1. Indoor environment. Asthma UK.
  2. McCormack et al. Respiratory Effects of Indoor Heat and the Interaction with Air Pollution in Chronic Obstructive Pulmonary Disease. Annals of the American Thoracic Society. 2016.
  3. Tietjen et al. Headache symptoms and indoor environmental parameters: Results from the EPA BASE study. Ann Indian Acad Neurol. 2012