Cough, cough, cough. This is the time of year when your respiratorial system will be subject to the greatest stress ever. Especially if you go somewhere in southeast Asia, but also other places where summers are hot and muggy, like Japan, Hong Kong, or Taiwan.
It is worse where the economic development is higher. This sounds backwards, but visiting Singapore and Bangkok is likely to be a much bigger stress on your nose, ears and throat than visiting rural Cambodia or Vietnam. And the reason is simple: Airconditioning.
One of the first things people in developing countries buy when they can afford it is an airconditioner. After they have covered necessities like a washing machine, refrigerator and a scooter to get around, they want the comfort of not sweating at home.
A traditional house in Japan was built to let the breeze through in summer and keep it outside in winter. That is why traditional Japanese houses consist of little more than sliding doors under a roof. In Thailand, the traditional magnificent teak houses were built to capture and funnel the wind so that the residents were cooled off. They had no air conditioning, so the only cooling possible was to funnel the wind to make the room feel cooler.
A fan does not actually cool the room, it just increases evaporation in the objects it hits with their airstream. Like sweat from the human body. When people are hot, they sweat. We are made to keep our bodies at a constant temperature, and sweating makes sure that you do not overheat.
Regulating without overheating
It is much easier to cool down a bit than heat up. Even without airconditioner. Unless temperatures approach dangerous levels, infants are in fact much better off without them. If you have not learned to regulate your body temperature yet, a constant temperature makes it much easier to keep your temperature than one which goes up and down.
The problem is not so much that the air is colder on the inside, but that we overdo the cooling. A lot. In many countries, you get the impression that people want to show off their airconditioning by cranking it up as much as is physically possible, and then some. The colder it is, the more airconditioning you can afford, and the more awsome you are, seems to be the thinking. Especially in countries like Thailand, Cambodia, and Vietnam where the temperatures in summer hit and pass 40 degrees centigrade.
When you come from the outside and enter the BTS train in Bangkok, your glasses will fog up. It is like going from a sauna to roll in the snow, only in the other direction. It is so cold on board the trains that the Thai ladies who ride it to work have taken to wearing a blanket - even in the middle of summer.
It used to be that way in Japan too, where people wear suits to work, summer or winter. This became a problem because rising energy prices made air conditioning more and more expensive. So expensive that the gradually hotter Japanese summers started making a huge hole in the national income.
Cold business to cool business
So the Japanese government did something that hardly would be possible anywhere else (because hardly anyone wears suits anymore). They started promoting "cool business" - what would be known as "business casual" in other countries. And it worked.
When people wear a shirt and slacks to work, they tend to accept higher temperatures indoors than if they are sweating in a suit. And gradually, the Japanese have raised temperatures in airconditionedspaces from 22 degrees centigrade to somewhere closer to 26 degrees. Japanese trains feel cool but not cold. At least not as cold as the Thai BTS.
When you go back and forth between an airconditioned space and a hot outdoors, it creates a strain on your body. For a small child, who has not yet learned to manage his or her own body temperature, this can be a chock. You do not want to do it too often in the day. Even if it is unlikely to be as bad as heatstroke, which can be lethal in infants.
It is not healthy for adults either, and if the difference between the outdoor and indoor temperature is too great, it is a sure way to get a cold. The temperature difference between outdoor and indoor temperatures should not be more than four degrees centigrade. When you get on the BTS, or enter other airconditioned places in the tropics, it is best to bring a light blanket, at least until your child has grown up a bit.
More harm than temperature
But the temperature is not the only way that an airconditioner can be harmful to a child. First, airconditioners are powerful fans. The constant wind cools down the body and dehydrates it since the body exhales water vapor with every breath. If your children are sleeping beneath the airconditioner outlet, move their bed. It is much better to mix up the air into a light breeze instead of a strong wind, using fans.
That also avoids the third airconditioner problem, and the reason newborns should not travel in airplanes: Dehydration.
Strong wind can dry you out but airconditioners dry the air as well as cooling it. This is why they make a room comfortable even at a relatively high temperature setting. Sweat gets lifted off the body much easier in a dry stream of air than when the humidity is high. But it also means that if you do not mix up the air from the air conditioner with other room air, it will be bad for small children.
Air condition is a great way of creating a comfortable environment in a hot climate, but do not overdo it. Humans are not adapted to the sudden changes in temperature. Especially not infants.
I am Wisterian Watertree, recently moved from Bangkok to Tokyo, with a brief visit to Honolulu on the way. I write about travel, especially with our three beautiful kids (two girls and one boy, soon turning six - yes. they are triplets). Travel is education and fun rolled into one, and if you are like me, that is something you want to give to your kids. If you want more tips and want to find out when I will publish something, get it from my email list. If you want to be personal, drop me a note on firstname.lastname@example.org, or if you want general tips, follow me on Twitter @wisterianw.