Humidifiers and Health

Written by Kristeen Moore | Published on July 18, 2012
Medically Reviewed by George Krucik, MD

Overview

Humidifier therapy adds moisture to the air to prevent dryness that can cause irritation in many parts of the body. Humidifiers can be particularly effective for treating dry skin, nose, throat, and lips. Some people also occasionally use a humidifier to ward off common cold and flu symptoms.

However, the overuse of humidifiers can potentially worsen respiratory problems, so it is important to know how to use them correctly.

For the best results, the Environmental Protection Agency recommends that the humidity level in your home not exceed 50 percent. (EPA)

Uses of a Humidifier

Humidity acts as a natural moisture agent that can relieve dryness. For this reason, humidifiers are often used for relieving:

  • dry skin
  • sinus congestion
  • dry throat
  • nose irritation
  • bloody noses
  • dry cough
  • cracked lips

When the air in your home is dry, you may be prone to these types of discomforts. This is especially the case during dry winter months, or when an air conditioner is being used during the summer.

Types of Humidifiers

The type of humidifier you choose depends on your preferences, budget, and the extent of the area in which you want to add moisture. There are five types of humidifiers:

  • central humidifiers
  • evaporators
  • impeller humidifiers
  • steam vaporizers
  • ultrasonic humidifiers

Central Humidifiers

Central humidifiers are built directly into your home’s air conditioning or heating unit. These are the most expensive types of humidifiers, but they are the best choice if you want to add humidity throughout the entire house.

Evaporators

Evaporators blow moisture through a moistened filter. Fans power the unit and expel the humidity into the air. Evaporative humidifiers cost more than average drugstore steam vaporizers.

Impeller Humidifiers

Impeller humidifiers are among the most child-friendly devices because they create cool mists. Also called “cool mist humidifiers,” these units work with the help of rotating disks that run at high speeds. Impeller humidifiers are an affordable choice for people on a budget.

Steam Vaporizers

Steam vaporizers are the most budget-friendly humidifiers, which can be purchased at drugstores. They are electrically powered and heat water that is cooled before expelled into the air. These are the most portable humidifiers and are often used in one room. Vaporizers are not the best choice for children because they can cause burns.

Ultrasonic Humidifiers

Ultrasonic humidifiers, like impeller humidifiers, produce a cool mist with the help of ultrasonic vibration. The units vary in price depending on the size you want for your home.

Controlling Humidity Levels

While adding humidity to the air may be beneficial, too much humidity can cause more problems. High humidity levels can worsen respiratory problems and create an uncomfortable dampness in the air, which can encourage:

  • dust mites
  • mildew
  • mold
  • harmful bacteria

According to the Mayo Clinic, humidity should stay between 30 and 50 percent. A hygrometer can determine how much humidity is in your home. Some central humidifiers come equipped with hygrometers. You can also buy these devices from hardware stores.

Test humidity daily, especially if someone in your household has allergies or asthma.

Possible Risks

Humidifier therapy provides real relief for some individuals. However, these devices can also cause problems when they are not used correctly.

Special care should be taken in households with children. Never let children handle humidifiers, and don’t place a warm-mist steamer in a child’s bedroom. Burns are the most common injuries associated with humidifiers.

Allowing a unit to expel too much moisture can create condensation on the walls. This water can then turn into mold and spread throughout the home.

Unclean humidifiers can cause bacterial growth that can promote coughs and colds. Follow the manufacturer’s instructions and clean the unit regularly to prevent bacterial growth. Steam vaporizers can get dirty quickly, but they are also among the easiest to clean. Rinse out all used water between uses. Additionally, be sure to wash the bucket and filter system every two to three days during usage.

Humidifiers can potentially emit minerals and microorganisms in the air. Although not necessarily harmful, the residue can bother asthmatics. The Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) recommends using distilled water to avoid this problem.

Call your doctor if your medical symptoms don’t improve. If your symptoms worsen with humidifiers, stop use entirely and contact your physician.

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