In addition to bone-chilling temperatures, winter also brings drier air. Breathing dry air can cause a stuffy or bloody nose, cracked lips, or a dry throat, which can lead to unwelcome coughing fits. Fortunately, the right humidifier can address those discomforts and actually ease symptoms of colds and other respiratory conditions.
Designed to increase humidity levels in the air, portable humidifiers come in a variety of types. The four most popular types include ultrasonic, impeller, evaporators, and steam vaporizers. Of these, only the steam vaporizer uses heat to generate a warm mist. The ultrasonic, impeller, and evaporator models all produce a cool mist through different means, making them especially safe for homes with small children.
The ideal humidity level to aim for when running humidifier is 30 – 50 percent. Some humidifiers have a built-in hygrometer, which will indicate the humidity level. Alternatively, you can purchase a hygrometer at most hardware stores. Keeping an eye on the humidity level is important, as too much humidity can be just as problematic as too little. High humidity levels can worsen respiratory problems and encourage the growth of mold, mildew, and harmful bacteria.
When choosing a humidifier, one of the key considerations should be how easy it is to clean. Dirty filters and reservoirs (water tanks) can harbor bacterial growth. Mist contaminated with bacteria can cause coughs, colds, or even lung infections, even in healthy people, and can be especially problematic for people with asthma and allergies.
A few tips for your keeping your humidifier clean and functioning properly include:
- Use distilled or demineralized water. Tap water contains minerals that can build up in your humidifier and promote bacterial growth. The produced mist may contain the minerals and/or the bacteria. To avoid breathing these in, use distilled or demineralized water, which has much lower mineral content than tap water.
- Change water often. Don't allow film or deposits to develop inside your humidifiers. Empty and dry the inside surfaces of the tank and refill with clean water every day, if possible.
- Clean humidifiers every 3 days. Remove any mineral deposits or film from your tank or other parts of the humidifier. A 3 percent hydrogen peroxide solution, available at most pharmacies grocery stores, is an affordable and effective option for cleaning. Be sure to rinse the tank after cleaning to keep harmful chemicals from entering the air.
- Change filters regularly. If your humidifier has a filter, follow the manufacturer’s recommendations for how often to change it. If it's dirty, you may wish to change it more frequently.
If you find the floor, walls or surfaces around your humidifier are damp, this is an indication it’s producing too much moisture. Either adjust the moisture level down or limit use of your machine to reduce the chance of mold growing.
When properly maintained and used with care, humidifiers can provide meaningful relief during the dry days of winter. But remember, a humidifier is not a medical solution to a cold or other issues. If you have symptoms that don’t improve or seem to get worse when using a humidifier, schedule an appointment with your doctor.
Dr. Adam Cohen is the medical director of the Emergency Department at Southwestern Vermont Medical Center. Like all emergency physicians at SVMC, he is board certified in Emergency Medicine.