My Vietnamese family thinks air-conditioning is unhealthy, and is reluctant to let our kids spend too much time in an air-conditioned room. But I think the Saigon heat is too much for them, and that the air pollution isn’t good for them either. Is there any truth to their belief?

With all those bikes and the constant dust blowing about from construction projects, it’s certainly true that the air over this city is far from fresh and it’s not always good for young children to spend a lot of time outside breathing in all those pollutants – not if they have another option. Vietnam is in the world’s top 10 most air polluted countries in the world, much of it sitting in a hazy smog over Ho Chi Minh City. It’s not even recommended for adults to do much exercise outside, let alone children.

Air conditioners filter as well as cool the air, so they’re an effective way of removing dangerous particulates that can otherwise lodge themselves in the lungs. That said, air-conditioning isn’t without its own health issues.

According to pediatrician Dr. Jonathan Halevy of Family Medical Practice, the benefits of air-conditioning are obvious. “Air-conditioning reduces humidity, keeps you cool, reduces sweating and also reduces skin irritation such as heat rash or a worsening of atopic dermatitis – and it does keep the air a bit cleaner,” he says. “Bringing down the humidity also reduces dust mite and mold growth, as well as any allergic reaction to them (such as allergic rhinitis and asthma).

“On the other hand, dry, cold air can be very irritating on the airways and many babies and adults suffer from stuffy or blocked noses because of air-conditioning,” he adds. “It can trigger coughs or an asthma attack and worsen the symptoms of a flu. If not treated routinely, a/c filters can collect dust and mold and spread them into the air, increasing the irritation.”

For the best solution, especially with kids who are sensitive to colds and flu, Dr. Halevy recommends a mixed approach: “If your kids tend to suffer from a stuffy nose when they wake up in the morning and you suspect that the air-conditioning is irritating their breathing, try using a fan at night. If that’s not an option, make sure the filters are cleaned routinely (every three to four weeks) and that the room temperature is pleasant (not too cold or too hot) – remembering that the temperature you see on the a/c screen is not the actual temperature of the room. Using humidifiers may help a little.”

With regular filter cleaning, air conditioners aren’t harmful to the health per se – your kids are more likely to benefit from the cooler temperatures than otherwise. The only real threat is the prolonged exposure to dry, cold air. Balance air-con use with fans and humidifiers, and try to keep your kids cool at all times.