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20 Ways Your Car Makes You Sick, Warn Experts

Dangers lurk behind every corner—inside your vehicle. Here's how to make your ride healthier.

Although you do it every day, hopping in your car can be downright exciting. It's your personal karaoke booth, the best place to binge your favorite podcast, and a cozy space to be alone with your thoughts—or close to the fam, as you see the world.

Your car could also be hazardous to your health.

Between traffic, mold, exhaust fumes, and hours of sitting, your daily drive home can take its toll (and we don't mean on the interstate). Keep reading to discover the potential threats. Read on to find out more, and to ensure your health and the health of others, don't miss these Sure Signs You Have "Long" COVID and May Not Even Know It.


It's Basically Bacteria on Wheels

A man cleaning car interior, car detailing

Most surfaces, including public restroom doors, phone screens, and kitchen counters, have a small amount of fecal matter and other hazardous bacteria. These areas are considered "touch points," which means hands are frequently touching them and spreading these nasty germs.

Your car is full of thousands of touch points—the gear shift, the door handle, the steering wheel, buttons on the radio. All of these touch points are also susceptible to dangerous bacteria and germs, including fecal matter, which can have e. Coli or salmonella. Factor in the crumbs from the snacks you munch on in your car from time to time and you're adding in rotting food particles, which creates a breeding ground for this bacteria.

According to a study conducted by, there are an average of 700 strains of bacteria festering throughout the interior of your car. The average steering wheel has about 629 colony-forming units (CFU) per square centimeter, making it four times dirtier than a public toilet seat. If you touch the steering wheel, then eat food, bite your nails, or wipe your nose, you're only spreading it and exposing yourself to potential illness.

Recommendation: Clean your car after every long road trip and once every few weeks. Use a cleaner with antibacterial properties and wipe down all touch points thoroughly, including the dashboard and buttons. Keep sanitizing wipes in your car to use after eating.


There's Mold in Your A/C Vents

Air conditioner in car

The air conditioning vents in your car are responsible for blowing cold or hot air to keep the temperature inside the car comfortable. More than likely, they're directed right at your face so you can capitalize on the comfort. But you may be blasting yourself with mold spores. If your a/c vents or the components behind them get a little damp, mold can grow, which is easily carried away by the flow of air and distributed into your car's cabin. The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention warns that consistent exposure to mold can cause coughing and wheezing, as well as throat and eye irritation.

According to Kelley Blue Book, if you smell mold when you turn on your a/c, chances are your evaporator core is growing this mold. This component is hidden behind your a/c vents in your dashboard, making it hard to reach. But it's important to get the mold out so you aren't susceptible to illness and irritation.

Recommendation: Run your a/c blower without the vents on for about 10 minutes periodically. This will help to dry out your evaporator core and vents. If the moldy smell persists, ask a mechanic or car detailer to take off your a/c vents and clean them. The professional should also gain access to your evaporator core and clean and treat it for mold.


It's Making You Depressed

Sad woman or teenager girl looking through a steamy car window

Your commute may be contributing to a reduced feeling of happiness in your everyday life. A study from the UK Office of National Statistics concluded that commuters generally have:

  • A lower feeling that their daily activities are worthwhile.
  • Lower life satisfaction.
  • Lower levels of happiness.
  • Higher anxiety.

The length of the commute also had a direct impact on a person's happiness. The same study found that anxiety levels rose and happiness levels fell even after the first 15 minutes into a commute. Commuters that had to endure daily driving times that were 61 to 90 minutes showed the most dramatic negative effects on happiness levels. Chronic unhappiness can lead to depression, which can be responsible for a host of other health problems, such as changes in appetite and weight or trouble sleeping.

Recommendation: If there's no way around your commute, try to make it fun. Choose a podcast (try the hilarious How Did This Get Made?) or listen to upbeat music during the drive. Take the scenic route if it means less traffic and stress for your ride home. Ask co-workers or friends to carpool so you can make the drive a social experience.

RELATED: 9 Everyday Habits That Might Lead to Dementia, Say Experts


You Sit For Too Long


You sit on your drive to work, you sit in your office for eight hours, you sit in traffic on your commute back home, then you sit to eat dinner and catch up on Succession before going to bed. All this sitting might be killing you. According to a study published in Diabetologia, most sedentary people had a 22 to 49% greater likelihood of early death, mostly due to their increased risk of diabetes and heart disease. Sitting too much and engaging in a sedentary lifestyle may increase your risk for type 2 diabetes by 112% and your risk for heart disease by 147%.

Recommendation: Consider biking or walking to work, if possible. If you have to drive and you have an office job, make sure you're standing up, stretching, and walking for a few minutes every 30 minutes throughout your day.


You're Being Exposed to Hazardous Cleaners

woman washing her car with sponge

If you're obsessed with a shiny car, you're not alone. According to Dun & Bradstreet Research, in the U.S. alone, there are there are 16,000 car wash establishments that earn a total annual revenue of $9 billion. Whether you prefer to get wash your car yourself or you take it to a local car wash, the cleaners used on the interior are important.

When you sit in your car, you touch these cleaned surfaces and you also breathe in airborne chemicals from the cleaners used. These cleaners can contain harsh chemicals, including:

  • Butoxyethanol. This contaminant can be found in certain window cleaners and can cause an irritated throat. In severe cases, it can increase your risk for kidney or liver damage.
  • Perchloroethylene (PERC). Mostly found in upholstery cleaners, this chemical is classified by the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) as a "possible carcinogen."
  • Phthalates. Air fresheners can contain phthalates and exposure to these chemicals can cause endocrine disruption. A 2003 study conducted by the CDC found that men with higher phthalate compounds in their blood had lower sperm counts.

Recommendation: If you're cleaning your car yourself, opt for all-natural cleaners. After cleaning your vehicle, ride with the windows down so you can ventilate the chemicals from the interior. If you take your car to a professional car washing service, ask to see the ingredients in their cleaners. Request all-natural cleaners or ask workers to skip using these cleaners altogether.


Speaking of Chemicals, That "New Car Smell" Is Toxic

Car air freshener on dashboard

If you're like many, you're in love with that "new car smell." There are even car air fresheners that attempt to mimic this aroma so you can feel like your car came straight from the dealership. But the chemicals that make up this new car smell are actually dangerous and can make you sick.

A study conducted by the Ecology Center analyzed the air quality in over 200 new cars. There were over 275 chemicals present in these cars, mainly due to the new materials used to manufacture the vehicle's interior. Some of the most toxic chemicals found were lead, chromium, and brominated flame retardants (BFRs). These chemicals are linked to liver problems, cancer, birth defects, and impaired learning.

Recommendation: Keep your windows rolled down as much as possible for the first few weeks after you buy a new car. You can also buy a small portable air purifier that attaches to your a/c vent to assist with ventilation. Don't use the air circulation option on your a/c until after the new car smell is gone.

RELATED: The #1 Reason You Could Get Cancer, According to Science


You'll Make Unhealthy Drink Choices

Man is dangerously eating junk food and cold drink while driving his car

Road trips usually mean on-the-go snacks and drinks. And a long stretch of highway can make you pretty tired, so it's no wonder you're immediately drawn to a caffeinated, sugary cola when you stop to stretch your legs and grab a bite. But if you opt for that 32-ounce soda, you could be making yourself sick.

According to a study published in Circulation, an American Heart Association journal, the consumption of sodas and sports drinks is associated with a greater risk of death from heart disease, especially among women. The more sugary drinks you consume per day, the higher the risk.

Recommendation: Obviously good old H2O is your best choice to hydrate while driving. But if you're dragging and need a pick-me-up to chug, reach for an unsweetened tea.


You Get Motion Sickness

Car Sick Woman Having Motion Sickness Symptoms

According to the U.S. National Library of Medicine, approximately 1 in 3 people are highly susceptible to motion sickness. This condition occurs when you experience frequent motion. The central nervous system receives conflicting information from the body's sensors. When this happens, you can feel nauseous, restless, drowsy, or dizzy. Travel and amusement park rides can be triggers for motion sickness. Car passengers are at the highest risk for motion sickness, but drivers can also experience this condition during travel.

Recommendation: Chewing gum and glancing at the horizon are known ways to combat motion sickness. If you're a passenger, you can also try keeping your eyes closed while traveling or napping. There are also many prescriptions or over-the-counter medications aimed at reducing the symptoms of motion sickness.


You Get Hip And Leg Pain

woman stratching near car on sunrise long car trip

Hip and leg pain during a long drive is common and may be due to an irritation of the sciatica nerve. This can cause pain and numbness in the buttocks and the leg and may be caused by sitting in one position for too long.

According to Dr. William C. Shiel Jr., MD, FACP, FACR, sciatica nerves exit the pelvic bone and re-emerge in the buttock area, then travel down the thigh and make their way all the way down to the foot. Driving and sitting for too long causes pressure to the nerve just below your buttocks.

Recommendation: If you're embarking on a long road trip, be prepared to take frequent breaks. Pull over every hour or so and take the time to stretch and walk around for a few minutes before driving again. Adjust your seat to a comfortable position that alleviates the pressure as much as possible.


You're Breathing In Exhaust Fumes

Blurred silhouettes of cars surrounded by steam from the exhaust pipes. Traffic jam

According to the CDC, carbon monoxide is released into the air any time fuel is burned in cars, trucks, small engines, and some home appliances. Car exhaust fumes release carbon monoxide, so it's perfectly normal to breathe in a little CO2 during your day. However, if you're stuck in traffic for a while or you spend a lot of your time driving, you may be susceptible to the symptoms of carbon monoxide poisoning. If you've inhaled too much carbon monoxide, you may experience:

  • Nausea or vomiting.
  • A dull headache.
  • Dizziness.
  • Difficulty breathing.
  • Confusion.
  • Weakness.

If you continue to inhale this toxin in large amounts, you can even lose consciousness and without treatment, you can die. In most cases, you're safe from the extremes of carbon monoxide poisoning, but it's important to be aware of how much time you spend on the highway.

Recommendation: Never turn on your car's engine in an enclosed space, such as your garage. If you're stuck in traffic on the highway, keep your windows rolled up so you're not breathing in other cars' fumes. Keep your car's exhaust system functioning properly and get it checked out by a mechanic regularly.


You're Gaining Weight From Overeating

Man eating an hamburger while driving car

If you're an experienced driver on a route you've taken a zillion times, the task can be mindless and calming. Since driving often becomes second nature, it's easy to zone out from your surroundings and let instinct take over. If you take a meal or snack with you on your drive, it's also easy to subconsciously continue eating until you're completely stuffed and miserable.

An increase in the number of calories you consume each day can significantly affect your weight. According to Dr. Barry Popkin, Ph.D., from the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill, "The real reason we seem to be eating more (calories) is we're eating often. The frequency of eating is probably, for the average overweight adult, becoming a huge issue."

Eating while driving is a definite way to ingest more calories than you need in a day. And according to the National Institute of Diabetes and Digestive and Kidney Diseases, excess weight increases your risk of developing many chronic conditions, including:

  • Heart disease.
  • Stroke.
  • Osteoarthritis.
  • Sleep apnea.
  • Kidney disease.
  • Type 2 diabetes.

Recommendation: Don't make eating in your car a habit. If you need to down a meal while driving, portion out what you're going to eat before getting into your car to prevent yourself from mindlessly overeating.

RELATED: The #1 Cause of Obesity, According to Science


You Have a Dirty Cabin Air Filter

Replacing the cabin air filter

It's easy to forget about changing or cleaning your cabin air filter since it doesn't really affect your car's functionality. But if you don't pay attention to this necessary maintenance task, it can make you sick. Your cabin air filter is important because it keeps debris like leaves, rodent droppings, and bugs from entering your car's HVAC system. The air filter also stops dust, dirt, pollen, and other contaminants from getting into the cabin of your vehicle, and from getting into your lungs.

A dirty cabin air filter allows these toxins to slip by and if you or your family members already have allergies or breathing problems, spending time in the car can make these symptoms worse. With a poor performing cabin air filter, you can experience a sore throat or stuffy nose.

Recommendation: According to Carfax, you should replace your cabin air filter once every year. February is usually a good month for replacement because it's right before the start of allergy season.


Driving Is Zapping Your Energy Level

tired woman driver

Traveling can be exhausting and driving is no exception. You may feel even more tired after a long drive than any other type of travel because you're responsible for navigating and reaching your destination safely. From the moment you sit behind the wheel, your brain is focused on your surroundings, using your reflexes and knowledge together to perform the function of driving. While it feels like you're just sitting there, your brain is actually really busy.

If you drive with bad posture, the drain on your energy level may be even more dramatic. According to Sherry Brourman, PT, poor posture puts pressure on your back and hips, which can make you feel tired and achy after driving.

Recommendation: To combat this dip in energy after your commute, be sure you get plenty of sleep and stay hydrated. The Institute of Medicine (IOM) recommends that men drink at least 13 cups of water each day and women drink at least nine cups. The Sleep Foundation recommends that adults aged 26 to 64 get seven to nine hours of sleep each night. If you're taking off for a long road trip, take breaks every few hours for a brisk walk so your mind can get a break from the intensity of driving.

RELATED: Everyday Habits That Age You Quicker, According to Science


You're More Likely to Make Bad Food Choices

Fast food worker handing customer McDonald's ice cream sundae from drive thru

We already know how important healthy eating is but being on the road can make it tough to make good food choices. If you're on a long road trip and need a quick meal or snack, chances are, you'll be stopping by a fast food joint or a gas station to grab something. There aren't many healthy food choices available at these places, so you may end up with something that's high in calories and fat, but low on nutrition.

These "empty calorie" foods only make you hungrier later. Snacks that are high in sugar are also addictive and you'll probably crave something sweet again in a few hours. According to CarePoint Health, the most notorious "empty calorie" foods are:

  • Cookies.
  • Cakes.
  • Donuts.
  • Chips.
  • Fried foods.
  • Processed meats.
  • High-fat dairy products.

The more you snack on these convenient treats while driving, the more likely you are to gain weight, which puts you at greater risk of heart disease and diabetes.

Recommendation: If you're heading out for a long drive and you know you'll get hungry, pack yourself a cooler with healthy snacks. Consider packing yourself carrots, dried fruit, or apples to snack on during your drive. If packing food just isn't an option, do your research and find healthy spots to stop and eat at on your route.


Your Seat Isn't Properly Adjusted

driver having back pain

According to Dr. Ginger Edgecombe Dorsey, Ph.D., from the USDA Animal and Plant Health Inspection Service (APHIS), you can face chronic pain in your neck, head, arms, and shoulders if your driver's seat isn't adjusted properly. Whether you're only commuting 20 minutes each day or you're about to take on a multi-day road trip, the right seat adjustments are pertinent to your health and wellbeing. The posture of the seat, it's height, and how close you are to the pedals will all determine whether or not you feel pain while driving and beyond.

Recommendation: The Physiomed Sitting Guide recommends that you first adjust the back of the seat, then its height. You should be able to see and sit comfortably without leaning forward. Next, adjust the seat forward or back until your feet comfortably reach the pedals without scooting or straining. The bend in your knees should only be about 20 to 30 degrees. You may need to continue adjusting your seat after testing it out on a drive until you feel comfortable.


You're Getting Anxiety

driver having back pain

Driving can be scary. You're in control of almost two tons of steel and your actions directly affect the safety of your passengers and other drivers on the road. When you're driving, you're constantly making split decisions based on your surroundings, knowledge, and past experiences. If you're already prone to anxiety, it can be easy to develop chronic driving anxiety.

According to Ted Moreno, Certified Hypnotherapist, symptoms of driving anxiety can include:

  • Heart palpitations.
  • Perspiration.
  • Sweaty palms.
  • Disorientation.
  • Confusion.
  • Dizziness.
  • Dry mouth.
  • Shortness of breath.

If you experience driving anxiety, it can negatively impact your health even when you're not behind the wheel. Anxiety can increase your risk for depression, lower your libido, and cause panic attacks. It can also cause muscle aches and irritability.

Recommendation: Cut down on caffeine or other anxiety triggers before getting behind the wheel. Plan your route so you know what to expect and try carpooling. Sometimes having company and conversation while driving can lower your anxiety levels. If your driving anxiety is severe, you may need to seek professional treatment from a counselor or psychiatrist.


Airborne Contaminants Are Coming in Through Your A/C Vents

Driver hand tuning air ventilation grille, fresh air is coming out

If you don't use the air recirculation function on your car's a/c, you may be exposing yourself to outdoor contaminants. While your car has a cabin air filter that's designed to eliminate odors and toxins from the air before it comes into your cabin, the filter will never be able to stop 100% of these contaminants.

If you're in traffic, you may be exposed to the fumes of the cars near you through your a/c vents. You may also be able to smell cigarette smoke and other airborne irritants from inside your car. If you're sensitive to these smells, you can experience allergy-like symptoms, such as coughing, sore throat, or a headache.

Recommendation: The button near your a/c controls that looks like a recycling sign is your recirculation option. Use this function to continue recirculating the air that's inside your cabin. Not only will this help to cool or heat your inside air quickly, it'll also keep outside contaminants from coming in. The only time you may need to turn off the recirculation option is if your windows begin to fog up. In this case, you'll need to turn on your defrost function and ditch recirculation until your are windows clear.


It's Stealing Away Your Exercise Time

fit woman in gym

A long daily commute can be a real time suck. If you're spending a lot of time in the car, your sitting marathon isn't doing any good for your health. You may feel you don't have as much time to devote to healthy habits you used to engage in, such as daily exercise. Trading these good habits for time spent sitting in the car can be more detrimental than you think.

If you feel like you don't have time to exercise due to a long commute, you're putting your brain and mental health at risk. According to Dr. John Ratey, M.D., from Harvard Medical School, "More brain cells are being activated when we exercise than when we're doing anything else." If you ditch your workout routine, your memory and ability to concentrate are negatively affected. Research published in the New England Journal of Medicine suggests your mood plummets and you're more likely to become depressed if you nix exercise from your schedule.

Recommendation: The only way to avoid the negative health effects of a sedentary lifestyle is to add exercise back into your schedule. You may need to workout in the morning or on your lunch break to ensure you're getting your sweat on. Try combining exercise with other tasks, if possible. You can walk to the grocery store or perform plyometric exercises, such as pushups and situps, during commercial breaks when you're watching TV at night.


You're Experiencing Road Rage

male driver shouts and gestures threateningly

The way you react to standstill traffic or getting cut off by another driver can directly affect your health. If you frequently experience road rage and get frustrated while you're driving, it can do more than put you in a bad mood. When you get angry on the road, your blood pressure and heart rate increase.

A study conducted by the University of the Sunshine Coast found that dealing with consistent road stressors doesn't just raise your blood pressure in the moment, it can actually continue having a negative effect on your body over the next six years. And high blood pressure is one of the greatest risk factors for heart disease. Another study published in the American Journal of Preventative Medicine discovered that the longer a person's work commute, the more likely he or she is to have a higher body mass index (BMI) and elevated blood pressure.

Recommendation: Keep yourself calm while driving by taking deep breaths and being considerate of others on the road. Running late can make you feel more stressed, so give yourself plenty of time to get to your destination and check traffic reports so you know what to expect.


You Can Get Blood Clots on a Long Drive

Fitness woman runner stretching legs

Blood clots, also referred to as deep vein thrombosis (DVT), are more prone to develop when you sit still in a confined space for a long period of time. There's a direct link between blood clots and traveling, so you should be cautious of long car rides. According to the CDC, the longer you stay sedentary and confined to one area, the greater your risk for developing a blood clot.

In most cases, blood clots dissipate on their own, but in rare cases, part of the clot can break off and travel to the lungs, causing a blockage. This dangerous condition is called a pulmonary embolism and it can be fatal if not treated right away. If you're over 40 years of age, obese, have had recent surgery, or have a history of blood clots, your risks are much higher for developing blood clots.

Recommendation: On your next long road trip, stop at least once every few hours to stretch your legs for a few minutes. Flex your feet and engage your calf muscles frequently. If you are at high risk of blood clots, talk to your doctor about any upcoming trips. He or she may recommend that you wear compression stockings for the ride and may also advise that you discontinue taking certain medications that can increase your risk for blood clots. And to get through life at your healthiest, don't miss these First Signs You Have a Serious Illness.

Kelly Hernandez
Kelly Hernandez is a health and wellness writer and certified personal trainer. Read more about Kelly
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