Fan Death

People in South Korea apparently believe they could die if they leave a fan on overnight.

I wonder where such a seemingly strange belief would originate. I think it has something to do with the Russian (and elsewhere) belief that being in the way of a breeze (especially a fan) will make you sick. This idea isn’t quite true either, but it has a bit more basis in reality. Having a fan blow on your face, especially overnight, will aggrevate the symptoms of a pre-existing cold. If the cold had been asymptomatic up to that point (and in adults, many colds are) then in the morning it will seem like you became sick because of the fan. Being cold will also aggrevates the symptoms of a cold. Hell, that’s where the condition gets its name.

I think the South Korea idea of fan death developed as an exaggeration of this fan-sickness connection.

What do you guys think?

I know people who still think “night air” in general causes illness. I wonder if there’s some bizarre connection there.

The Master speaks.

My favorite quip:

I mentioned the Korean belief that fans can cause death to some nurses once. To my surprise, the nursing supervisor, a Haitian lady, said that people in Haiti believe the same thing and that she, personally, had seen deaths that resulted when a fan was used overnight. For whatever that is worth.

The French, in general, are also very sensitive to drafts. I have personally heard of such complaints, and being a 'merkin living in a drafty house, I can’t imagine what they’re talking about.


This appears to have the potential for a factual answer, (if not regarding the deaths, regarding the origin of the belief).

Certainly, I see no debate, here.

Off to GQ.

[ /Moderating ]

What really grinds my gears is this:

These are men of science, and they are perfectly happy believing that a fan will kill someone just by being in the same room as them. That would be like an American doctor drilling a hole in a patient’s head to release the demons. (Note: I realize sometimes doctors do drill holes in heads, but not to let out demons.)

However, a fan that has a fault or fails can use up all the available oxygen in the room and suffocate you…

Well I tried!

It’s not just a silly folk belief. My pediatrician when I was a kid subscribed to the theory that most colds are acquired during a weaker state after exposure to cold. She also believed that topical exposure to cold can lead to neuralgia in a certain muscle - specifically not wearing a scarf in the middle of winter in Moscow = inflamed neck muscle. I’ve experienced this personally.

You’d be surprised at how prevalent that “fan death” belief is here. This summer, I was one of the lecturers at a teacher training workshop. I was talking about urban legends and how they’ve contributed to the English language. Fan Death was the intro I used of course. I could only get one other person to volunteer for an experiment: When sleeping that night, close the windows and leave the fan on; then report to the class the next day the outcome–assuming you live."

Don’t leave us hanging, Monty. Did he survive?

Me, I’d skip the class the next day just to jerk you around but I don’t see stereotypically earnest Korean students doing that. Just the unstereotypically wise-ass ones.

My husband sleeps with a fan and it drives me freekin’ nuts. I sleep on the couch 90% of the time because of it.

So you’re saying they just leave the demons in there? That’s unbelievable.

My wife and I are living proof that this has no basis in fact. Many times this past summer it was too rainy to have the window in our bedroom open, but too hot to not use a fan. In fact we used TWO fans, a ceiling fan and an oscillating fan. Unless there is a internet connection in heaven, I’m still alive and kickin’.

Then again, we’re about as American as you can get. I can’t speak for any Koreans.

We learn beliefs the same way we learn language, what things are food and how to act in public… from each other. Truth isn’t really necessary. I’d venture to guess that we all believe lots of things that aren’t true. I still believe lots of things my mother told me, even though time and experience have shown she was sometimes wrong. They sound reasonable and I can’t be bothered to research them, so I accept them. Human nature.

Just because it didn’t cause YOUR death doesn’t mean it can’t cause A death. A friend of mine rolled balls of mercury around in his mouth for fun with no ill effects. I’ve doused myself in a flammable liquid and lit myself ablaze (on a dare, don’t ask) with no injuries other for singed eyebrows and hair and ruined clothes. Another friend of mine will take any pill offered, and so far that hasn’t killed him either. Does that mean all those things are safe? No, they’re just as dangerous if you survive them as they are if you do not.

I think there’s two questions here

a) Does the drying and cooling effect of moving air contribute to getting an illness (not making one worse) such as respiratory viruses, pneumonia, strep, or neuralgia or causing something that simply appears to be those things ?

b) Does a fan, through either the fact that it moves air or through side effects of operation somehow cause hypothermia, asphixiation or poisoning?

My guess about (a) is ‘most likely’, and about (b) is ‘hell no’. Almost every single time I get severely wet and cold, even if I haven’t seen another human for a couple of days, I will start getting cold symptoms within 12-14 hours of the exposure. I’m not exaggerating, I’ve probably fallen into bodies of cold water 8-10 times in my life by accident, all of those times I got sick. I’m not implying a virus materialized out of the ‘wind’ but either the temperature makes me more susceptible or there is no virus and that is just the way my body reacts to temperature - fever, sore throat, stuffed up nose and sinuses for a few days.

In Russian culture, for instance, ‘the wind’ is not implied to ‘cause’ anything. It is implied that the rapid cooling by convection as a result of moving air is a contributing factor to a number of physiological conditions.

Yep, it’s not just a Korean thing, my wife heard it growing up in Japan (and believed it for quite some time).

Some varieties of genetically obese rats are especially prone to hypothermia (link which mentions the effect, but is not where I initially learned of it. That source isn’t online).

There might be an undiscovered human mutation with the same sensitivity.

Actually, the way mercury gets into the brain is through inhilation of vapors, not mere contact with its liquid form. People need to not be so paranoid about mercury. Also, small doses of “poisons” and other temporary stressors make you healthier (not sure about mercury, but definately arsenic). This is called hermesis. In fact, I see many connections with the way we treat potentially poisionous substances (there is NO substances which are/are not poisonous, only ones with low toxic doses) and how koreans treat fans. It seems whenever there is a grain of truth regarding a danger, it gets encrusted into a pearl of misconception.

Actually, your experience is precisely why (a) is NOT true. It takes many days for an infection to develop. Organisms have to breed from a small number of individuals to billions/trillions, and they simply cannot do this that quickly inside the human body (or even a petri dish). In fact, I believe it takes about two weeks (definately at least one) from the time of infection for a cold to develop.

Rather, the body chooses to bring out the symptoms while it is battling a microorganism in response to stress. The symptoms of fever and runny nose are not caused by the invaders themselves. This is why neurotropic agents are used to combat them. Pain relievers against fevers, adrenaline-like substances (pseudoephedrine/psuedophed… way better than caffeine!) for runny noses. I do not know the full purpose of symptoms. Perhaps in part they help combat the infection (eg a fever). However, it seems for the most part their role is to make you miserable. I guess it’s to make you buckle down and relax. Whatever it is, seems like cold on your body and wind up your nose is the main trick to bring them out.

However, that brings me to the second point. Being regularly exposed to cold and wind is the only way to condition your body so that it doesn’t overreact when it encounters them during an infection. Despite having an entire word for this, “zakalka,” the Russians I know generally scoff at the idea and think one should shield himself from wind and cold all the time. In truth the joke is on them, because I think in the end they’ll experience more severe symptoms and more often. The trick is to know when you’re infected (I can kind of tell when I have some very slight symptoms… as I did last week) and protect yourself only then (as i should have done, since i have somewhat more noticeable symtoms now… though still not too bad because I follow the “stop being a pussy” method).

As many mentioned, there is also a widespread belief that drafts will cause muscle/body pain. Can’t say I noticed this myself. But… I dunno. There’s probably something to that as well. It’s true that learning is how myths get exaggerated and perpetuated. But it is NOT an explanation for why they arise to begin with. There is ALWAYS, in my opinion, some grain of truth, however deeply buried, behind folk wisdom.
Disclaimer: the things I have said are mostly coming from me, not from what I learned from doctors. Doctors are generally split into two camps: the cold-sickness connection is urban legend (those are the pretensious self-righteous types who get a kick out of thinking that everyone is wrong alex_d whistles and glances at the sky), and those who give the “lowers immune system” line. That latter explanation I find very lacking. Symptoms develop just too quick. One night is too quick, but yesterday I started getting a fever while being in a draft for a mere hour! The fever went away by the evening after I turned off the fan. Today the same thing happened this afternoon after an hour (I like my fresh air), and we’ll see if it goes away again. Also, there is a series of subtle arguments about the effects of cold and the role and cause of symptoms that leads me to think they’re just something the body throws at you out of whim to control your behavior. However, what there should be is a study which compares microorganism counts before and after a cold experience (ie before and after symptoms develop). If the numbers shoot up, it’s lowered defenses. If numbers stay the same, it’s the body’s whim.

I agree with everything you have said but I would still advise against putting mercury in your mouth. The fan death looks to be along the same lines as nuclear paranoia. Most people in the United States would be horrified by the thought of handling a chunk of plutonium without gloves because everybody knows radioactivity will kill you instantly if you even think about it.