Hot Tempers Over Cool Air

Tensions between Russia and the West arise from many sources: nuclear proliferation, missile defense systems, and, of course, air conditioning.

An age-old Russian belief that air conditioning is a sure route to colds and flu has led to growing numbers of hot and grumpy expats in the summer.

"There is a low-level civil war going on in my office between those for and against the air conditioning, which apparently is bad for your health," said one expat, who withheld his name for fear of aggravating his anti-air-conditioning colleagues.

During the recent heatwave, people in his office had been "turning [the air-conditioning up], then down, opening windows, others angrily closing them, hiding the air-conditioner remote ... I am sure the same is going on in every office in the city," he said.

Though considered archaic by many Westerners, the belief that air-conditioning causes illness still enjoys widespread acceptance in Russia.

"Air conditioning can cause colds," said university student Anna Chikhrai. "Especially if you're sitting in an office and there's an air conditioner nearby, the cold air can hurt your throat."

Muscovite Andrei Kolganov said he also believed air conditioning could lead to disease.

"I'm not a specialist," he said. "However, I think when a person undergoes any severe change in temperature, it can cause a cold."

Many medical specialists share Kolganov's opinion.

"Some people come in from the hot street and want to get cool as soon as possible," said Dr. Nikita Romashko of American Medical Centers. "But when temperatures change quickly, it causes immune disturbances, and as a result, disease."

Romashko offered some advice for the safe use of air conditioning.

"You shouldn't change the temperature more than five degrees from the outside temperature. When an organism gets air that is too cold, it affects resistance and immunity to bacteria."

Elena Baud, a therapist and intern at the Swiss Medical Association in Zurich, said that air conditioners are not risky, if one knows how to handle them. She also gave several tips to prevent illness.

First, the conditioner should be switched off when opening windows. Second, sitting very close to the air conditioner can be harmful, especially after coming in from the hot street or an unconditioned room.

Finally, one should ensure that the technical features of the air conditioner are compatible with the conditions where it will be working.

"Sometimes bad quality or outdated technical appliances can be the reason for getting a cold, so one has to consider the price-quality dilemma very carefully," she said.

A doctor from Ne Bolit Medical Center, who asked to be identified only as Irina, stressed the importance of air conditioner maintenance.

"Viruses grow in air-conditioning filters," she said. "When people do not clean their filters very often, it can circulate viruses in the air, causing diseases."