In response to acute environmental stresses such as air pollution, households may resort to quick and convenient adaptation measures that increase energy use, amplifying the environmental impact and requiring additional adaptation. This cycle of energy-intensive adaptation has so far received little consideration by the broader energy community. Here, we analyse the response of Korean households to PM2.5 (ultrafine dust), based on real-time hourly smart meter data. We show that a 75 mu g m(-3)increase in PM2.5 concentration led to an 11.2% increase in electricity consumption, equivalent to the impact of a 3.5 degrees C increase in the average summer temperature. The magnitude of the energy-intensive adaptation correlated with households' lifestyles and was higher on weekends and during daytime hours on both weekdays and weekends. The responses also reflected seasonal differences and had a U-shape relationship with temperature. We illustrate the importance of integrating the broader impacts of air pollution into policymaking to strike a proper balance between its mitigation and adaptation. The impact of energy consumption on air pollution in various forms has been studied extensively though less is known about how ambient air pollution affects energy use. Here, Eom et al. show how ambient air pollution increases domestic energy use in South Korea.