Can Air Purifiers Cause Headaches? Uncovering The Facts

Headaches are horrible! Believe me, I’ve suffered enough times in my life, and I wouldn’t wish that on anyone.

For a number of reasons you might be wondering, “Can air purifiers cause headaches?” I’d love to help answer that!

In this post I’ll clear up the confusion you might have about air purifiers, headache triggers, and which kind of products you need to avoid (whether it’s for headaches, or just to get the most effective air cleaning for your dollar).

Infographic – Air purifier and headache facts

Can air purifiers cause headaches infographic image

Video guide – Can air purifiers cause headaches?

Air purifier headaches are uncommon

Man with headaches air purifier

While there are many causes of headaches, air purifier headaches aren’t very common.

The reason is that in nearly all cases one of many possible triggers is the real cause, not the air purifier. This includes particles in the air as well as odors and chemicals in gas form.

Where do headaches come from?

People who are allergic to things like tobacco smoke, mold spores, plant pollen, pet dander, and more have mucous membranes in their sinus cavities that become irritated. When this happens the sinuses react and begin to cause pressure in the head near nerves due to swelling.

When swelling in the sinuses occurs, nerves such as the trigeminal nerve and nearby areas respond in a way that you feel as headache pain.

The main thing to remember here is that headaches are normally caused by external triggers not related to air purifiers. Good quality air purifiers process the air and remove these triggers.

There are certain types you need to avoid, as you’ll see below.

The 2 types of air purifiers

2 air purifier types comparison image

Products sold and labeled as “air purifiers” are categorized as 2 types:

  1. Emitting purifiers
  2. Non-emitting purifiers (filter-based)

What does this mean? It’s really simple, actually.

  • “Emitting” purifiers are those products like ozone generators that produce – or emit – a by-product into the air like ozone or ions.
  • Non-emitting (filter-based) purifiers are those that use filters to remove particles & gases from the air. They don’t add anything into the air around you.

Ozone generators and ionizers, often marketed as “air cleaners” or “air purifiers” are electrical devices that use high voltage to separate air molecules and create ozone molecules.

The misleading marketing idea used to sell to buyers is that as they produce ozone and create fresh air in the room as they work.

Usually, ozone generators are sold with the idea that ozone molecules can attract and attach to other substances (like dust, microbes, allergens, and so on) to cleanse the air in a room, automobile, or wherever they’re used.

Emitting-type purifiers can actually trigger headaches for some people.

Emitting purifiers

The Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) is very clear about these types of purifiers. They define ozone as a lung irritant.

The EPA also notes that ionizers are ineffective in removing large particles like pollen and house dust. In this category of product you’ll find two types:

  • Ionizers
  • Ozone generators


ionizer purifier examples

Examples of ionizers available for home use sold as air purifiers.

Ionizers and ozone generators are very similar in how they work but generally speaking ionizers produce charged atoms in the air to attract airborne particles to a metal plate or similar object like a filter.

They typically don’t introduce a high level of emissions into the air, so they’re generally safe and aren’t likely to produce headaches. If you’re especially sensitive, however, it’s possible.

Additionally, they can reduce sickness by dramatically reducing the number of airborne sickness-causing microbes!

As a rule, an ionizer is helpful for improving the germ levels in a room, but as far as air cleanliness goes, they’re not very effective for the most common household air quality problems.

You can, however, buy a filter-based purifier with an ionizer feature in some cases.

Ozone generators

Ozone generator example image

Shown: An ozone generator that produces large amounts of O3 molecules (ozone) by splitting oxygen molecules (O2) from the surrounding air. Some of these recombine to form ozone with a charge whereby they can attach to particles in a room’s air. The side effects humans feel depends on the ozone levels they’re exposed to.

The truth is, ozone generators don’t purify the air without health risks – or as effectively – as filter-based products do.

While it’s true that they can trap some elements in the air like dust, pet dander, and similar particulates, they’re not at all efficient at doing so. The reason is that when ozone (O3) molecules are produced, they have a short life span before recombining back into oxygen molecules at some point.

How they create problems for you

An ozone generator, generally speaking, produces a lot of ozone in a room. The idea is that by doing so allergens and other contaminants will bond with the ozone, causing it to fall to the ground or be trapped in a filter if provided.

The main problem with this is that it takes a significant amount of ozone to make a worthwhile difference.

So much so that these are not recommended to be used in rooms that are occupied by people. That’s because there’s a health risk involved due to the high levels of ozone.

What is ozone?

Diagram showing ozone production and pair particles

Ozone is simply a molecule made of three atoms of oxygen that don’t normally occur often in nature.

It’s created when a high voltage “aura” (fields around a fine high voltage source) rearrange the oxygen molecules present in the air around it.

Normally oxygen is present with only 2 atoms. When 3-atom ozone is created, the third atom can break away from the ozone molecule (often called ions) and attach/bond with other substances in the air.

In some cases, this can attract trace amounts of debris and tiny particles like dust, pollen, and others in the air.

Uses in air cleaning products

More advanced ozone generators may include a fan and may make big claims about their ability to filter and purify the air as a real air purifier would do.

However, the 1st problem is that they simply aren’t effective like a well-designed air purifier is at safe levels. Industrial-strength ozone generators can have good results, but they’re not safe to be around and normally are used without people present.

It’s important to understand that no agency of the federal government has approved any of these devices for normal everyday human use.

The symptoms of unsafe ozone levels

Image of human respiratory system

The problem with ozone is that the same properties it has for air cleaning (at high levels) also means it can trigger symptoms in your body when breathed in.

At the minimum, ozone can be an irritant and in extreme cases can be damaging to your health.

To quote information from the Environmental Protection Agency about ozone and its health risks:

Relatively low amounts can cause chest pain, coughing, shortness of breath and throat irritation. Ozone may also worsen chronic respiratory diseases such as asthma and compromise the ability of the body to fight respiratory infections.

People vary widely in their susceptibility to ozone. Healthy people, as well as those with respiratory difficulty, can experience breathing problems when exposed to ozone. Exercise during exposure to ozone causes a greater amount of ozone to be inhaled, and increases the risk of harmful respiratory effects.

Recovery from the harmful effects can occur following short-term exposure to low levels of ozone, but health effects may become more damaging and recovery less certain at higher levels or from longer exposures (US EPA, 1996a, 1996b)

The United States Occupational Safety and Health Administration (OSHA) mandates the safe levels that humans in the workplace can be safely exposed to.

They also note the symptoms that you’ll fee. Both alone and combined with other chemicals, ozone can produce irritation and headaches when sufficient exposure is provided. 

A room filled with a high level of ozone can easily cause coughing and a strange feeling of unnatural air exposure in my experience.

Non-emitting (filter) purifiers

diagram of how an air purifier works

A filter-based air purifier works not by emitting by-products into the air like an ionizer or ozone generator, but only by safely removing unwanted substances from the air. Almost all use a highly dense HEPA filter (shown in white) and an activated carbon filter/pre-filter (black). When used together, these remove headache-causing elements like allergens, odors, chemical substances, perfume smell, organic substances, outgassing molecules, and more.

A non-emitting air purifier works not by producing by-products that enter the air, but by simply but processing air in the room. They permanently trap and remove particulates and many other types of airborne pollution.

Filter type purifiers work by using a fan to draw in air which passes through the filters which trap air contaminants before releasing clean air back into the room.

These work by continually cycling and cleaning a room’s air as they work. You can let them run 24 hours a day if you like, in fact.

HEPA filters and prefilters explained

High-quality models use a high-efficiency particulate air (HEPA) filter to remove particles as small as 0.3 micrometers (less than 1/100,000 of a meter!) in size by permanently trapping them.

The result is safe, fresh air without anything produced as a side effect – therefore there’s nothing to breathe in and potentially cause headaches.

The HEPA filter standard

HEPA is a United States government standardized level of filter quality and assures that the 0.3 uM (micrometer) particle size and is met and that 99.97% of the contaminants in the air moving through the filter never escape.

In other words, the HEPA standard means that a filter has to meet the requirements of how small the elements it can capture are and how efficient it is at removing particulates.

An additional 1st & 2nd stage filter section first removes larger particles and matter in the air (like cat hair, for example) and uses an activated carbon filter that attracts chemical substances in order to trap and hold them. This allows it to permanently remove many odors, volatile organic chemicals (VOCs), and vapors that can affect you.

Can air purifiers reduce headaches?

Image of a woman relaxing with no headache
Indeed, they can, if you buy the right kind as I mentioned above!

Using medicines that give relief to the symptoms like antihistamines, migraine medication, or aspirin and ibuprofen is only one way to deal with the problem. Ideally, you’ll be able to completely remove the source of the problem.

For example:

  • Remove household sources of chemical or organic odors
  • Keep pets outside (for pet allergy problems)
  • Remove perfumes or cologne
  • Ventilate your living area with fresh air to remove odors & substances in the air
  • Minimize dust
  • Don’t allow smokers in your home and breathing space

Not everyone can completely eliminate headache triggers in their home. Sometimes it isn’t practical to do so or possible.

In that case, using a non-emitting filter with a good quality filter as well as an activated carbon filter is an excellent idea. A high-quality product can remove headache-causing particles and/or vapors from the air permanently.

You can indeed get relief in these cases if you shop wisely and take measures to reduce the amount of headache-causing sources in your home.

If you’re sensitive odors then the best air purifier for you would be one with an active carbon filter. I strongly recommend one since you generally won’t be paying more money. Be sure to shop carefully and you’ll pay about the same as one without it.

In summary – can an air purifier cause headaches?

To recap what we’ve covered, here are the basics to remember:

  • Air purifier headaches are not common.
  • Headaches are normally caused by triggers like particulates and odors/chemicals in the air. Your sinuses react and cause headaches due to these.
  • A quality, filter-based air purifier won’t cause headaches and can prevent them by reducing triggers around you in the air
  • Emitting-type purifiers can potentially cause headaches for some people. They also don’t clean the air of headache-causing particles and gases like filter-based products do. Avoid them.
  • Whenever possible, remove sources of allergens or chemicals & odors from your home to reduce problems.

Ionizers that produce safe levels of ozone do have a use in light-duty freshening of the air but aren’t recommended for people who are sensitive to headache-causing triggers.

Generally speaking, you should avoid products sold as “air purifiers” that are actually 100% ozone generators. Ionizers are less bothersome, but may trigger very sensitive and simply aren’t effective for air cleaning.

Grant Williams

About the author

Grant is a professional engineer by trade and has experience with both maintenance and do-it-yourself home projects. He enjoys sharing his expertise & ideas with others to help them improve their comfort and quality of life. Read more »

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