Can Air Conditioning Units & Vents Spread Coronavirus?

Are you safe inside your home?

Can Air Conditioning Units Spread Coronavirus? getty

As the summer begins to heat up, quarantine is becoming increasingly difficult without access to beaches and public pools. Americans are preparing by purchasing AC units to keep us cooled down through what could be a long summer spent indoors.

But can air conditioners spread coronavirus?

Some experts predict that coronavirus will mimic other viral outbreaks, and an increase in temperature will see the virus slowly die off. Our immune systems are stronger in summer months, and as the virus passes its peak in many states, hope shines through.


But a new study, published in the journal Emerging Infectious Diseases, and shared by the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, indicates a more grim outlook for the progression of the pandemic. 

This study contains concerning evidence that air conditioners could be vehicles for the viral infection to spread. 

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Air conditioning works by removing humidity from the air. AC units convert hot, humid air into a dry, cool breeze. However, the moisture droplets that these units extract from the air are also the droplets needed to weigh down infectious particles and prevent them from being airborne.

These particles or respiratory droplets are responsible for the spread of the virus. When an infected person produces droplets, they can fall up to 6 feet away. This is why social distancing regulations stress this distance.

But the key term here is "fall." We need these droplets to land on a neutral surface and not make their way on to another person. By removing moisture, and therefore weight, air conditioning units could potentially spread the virus further than 6 feet.

Evidence from the study was collected in Wuhan, China, where the outbreak of coronavirus began in late 2019. The study found that 9 people who ate at a Wuhan restaurant were infected with COVID-19 by sitting near AC vents that carried viral droplets into their airways.


One asymptomatic diner, sitting in front of the AC unit, is said to have passed on the disease to fellow diners at their own table and at neighboring tables.

This is alarming information and could shape how we proceed with coronavirus prevention in the summer month. 

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But the study is mainly best on speculation and has polarized experts.

Among the 72 diners eating at the restaurant, just 10 were found to be COVID-19 positive. The study states that the seating patterns allowed the air conditioning unit to blow viral droplets over just a few of the customers, but basic proximity must have also played a role as all of the infected patrons were sitting near one another.


Anne Liu, MD, an infectious disease physician at Stanford Health Care, believes that there's a lack of studies into whether coronavirus could be spread through air vents. She disagrees with the study’s conclusion that coronavirus is spread through AC units.

She said, “This was all circumstantial. They have not proven that that's the case.” We also can’t gather further information on this for ourselves because of restaurant closures, leaving us with a lot of uncertainty around the issue.

Should air conditioning units in our homes be a cause for concern? 

Throughout these ever-changing pandemic, one thing has remained the same: person to person contact is the primary contributor to the spread of coronavirus.

This means that limiting your exposure to other people is still the safest thing you can do for yourself and the people in your household. If you're practicing correct social distancing measures, your AC unit should not be a source of worry for you. 


Of course, as we hope to relax in quarantine, you may be concerned about what could happen when you do begin to invite other close family members and friends into your home who had not been quarantining there previously.

Believe it or not, air conditioning units have lived through other viruses. Based on existing data on SARS-CoV-2, the strain of virus that causes COVID-19, researchers at the University of Oregon and the University of California, Davis, published a report that suggests opening a window instead of using your unit.

It’s worth noting, though, that this evidence is mainly based on units that carry air through entire buildings, such as in apartment blocks.

This kind of transmission also relies on an area being densely populated to the point where there's limited air currents, which is unlikely, unless you plan on hosting a large party soon. In which case, person-to-person transmission is still your biggest problem. 


How can you minimize the risk of air vent transmissions?

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If someone in your household has been exposed to the coronavirus, you may want to consider keeping them away from AC vents where possible. Fresh air through an open window will prevent the virus from incubating in a room.

But we all know that once we hit 90-degree weather or allergy season, having windows open isn’t always an option. In that case, tape up the return vents in the room where the infected person is isolating.


"If central air disperses infectious virus, being close to the exhaust point is a risk factor," says epidemiologist, Meghan May, of the University of New England College of Osteopathic Medicine. "If a person has a sick relative and central air, therefore, keep the sick person distant from the intake point."

Sanitizing your air ducts by spraying in a disinfectant and cleaning a vent is an option, but scientists have not recommended doing so.

Ana Rule, assistant professor at the Department of Environmental Health and Engineering at the Johns Hopkins Bloomberg School of Public Health, argues that ventilation systems work better with age as dust particles will trap the infection. So, don’t go switching out that old filter just yet!

She proposes that we maintain air circulation and keep the thermostat between 70-75 degrees, as viruses lose infectivity in warmer temperatures. 


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Alice Kelly is a writer with a passion for lifestyle, entertainment, and trending topics.