Toxic Car Syndrome: 3 Ways Your Car Is Making You Sick

Regardless of whether you have a quick commute every day or spend a few hours behind the wheel on a regular basis, you depend on your car to do more than get you from Point A to Point B. You also depend on it to keep you safe.

While you might do a great job of keeping up with your vehicle maintenance, including regularly checking your tire pressure and fluids, you could still be missing an important safety precaution that puts your health at risk.

Your car transports a lot of different things, from groceries and work supplies to kids and pets. Everything that enters your car has the potential to leave behind germs and hazardous bacteria, putting you and your passengers at risk for illness and infection.

Why Cars Make Us Sick

In our homes, we’re aware of the need to clean those surfaces we touch frequently — such as doorknobs, kitchen counters and light switches — to get rid of germs and bacteria. But how often are you doing the same thing for your car? Some of the surfaces touched most frequently in your vehicle include the steering wheel, gear shift, buttons on the stereo and dashboard and door handles. When’s the last time you wiped those down?

Now, think about all of the activity that’s happened in your car since the last time you cleaned those surfaces. Snacks have been eaten, drinks have been spilled, noses have been wiped — you get the picture. And every one of those things leaves some sort of trace inside your vehicle. In fact, it has led to a condition known as Toxic Car Syndrome or Sick Car Syndrome.

This can occur when small particles of food end up on the floor mat or fall into crevices between the seats and become a campground for bacteria. But that's just the tip of a large, dirty iceberg. A study from the National Center for Biotechnology Information found that car interiors are one of the dirtiest places on the planet and that the average steering wheel is dirtier than — wait for it — a toilet seat. And they have more than twice the amount of bacteria found on public elevator buttons. (Think about that the next time you decide to grab some fries at a drive-thru.)

The study found that the average car has more than 700 different strains of bacteria, which can cause everything from food poisoning and skin infections to MRSA. Cleaning the interior of your car every few weeks, including wiping down all touchpoints using an antibacterial cleaner, can help keep the bacteria at bay. It’s also a good idea to keep a container of sanitizing wipes in your car and use them before and after you eat or after performing tasks like pumping gas.

Cleaning up the interior regularly will help, but it still won’t get rid of all the dangers lurking in your car that can make you sick. Here’s a look at three other ways your car could be making you sick — and what you should do about it.

No. 1: Mold in Your Air Conditioning Vents

If you or anyone in your family has symptoms like eye irritation, coughing or sneezing, drowsiness or a feeling of tightness in the chest, it could be the result of mold in your vents. The condensation that is created in the evaporator as the air conditioner cools the air can become a breeding ground for mold and mildew. Then, when the air blows across the vents, it spreads microbes throughout the cabin of your vehicle, where they can go forth and multiply.

If you’re having this problem, or if you smell mold when you start up your car, it’s worth a trip to your mechanic to have your air conditioning vents professionally cleaned and to check your evaporator core for mold.

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No. 2: Outdoor Contaminants Inside Your Car

Keeping your windows up is a great way to keep things like fumes from other cars, cigarette smoke and other contaminants from entering your vehicle. But if you’re not using the air recirculation feature on your A/C, you are drawing those outside contaminants into your car. What’s worse is that they are bypassing your cabin air filter and coming straight into your vehicle. That exposes you to all the toxins and pollutants around you.

You can correct this by pressing the button on your air conditioning that has the outline of a car with an arrow that looks like it is going in a circle. This feature recirculates the air inside your car instead of bringing in air from the outside. By doing so, it ensures that the air circulating in your vehicle has already passed through the cabin filter, so it’s going to be cleaner — and, on hot days, it will already be cooler, too.

No. 3: Exhaust Fumes In Your Cabin

Driving in traffic means that you’re going to be breathing in some of the fumes from the vehicles around you. While small amounts won’t hurt you, if you spend a lot of time driving, it may be that you’re breathing in too much carbon monoxide, and that’s extremely dangerous. It can lead to symptoms like nausea, vomiting, headaches, difficulty breathing and more.

You can cut down on the danger by keeping your windows rolled up when driving (or sitting) in heavy traffic and, as mentioned above, always use the recirculation feature to make sure you aren’t pulling outside fumes into your vehicle. You should also have your exhaust system checked and maintained on a regular basis to make sure it doesn’t have any leaks that would allow fumes to leak into the cabin of your vehicle.

Don’t Let Your Car Make You Sick

Since cars play such a huge role in our daily lives, it’s important to take care of them both inside and out. Making sure you are keeping your interior clean and free from bacteria and mold is a great starting point; then ensure you aren’t inviting any outside contaminants inside the cabin.

Preventing these common culprits from riding along in your vehicle can keep you and your family on the road to good health and will also help make sure that your vehicle is in top condition.

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