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When you’re coughing, sneezing, or have an itchy nose, dry air can be extra aggravating. Air that’s dry can also flare eczema, trigger nosebleeds, increase dry eye and make any cold or flu feel more miserable. In winter months when you’re heating your home, and in drier climates, dry air can feel like a constant companion.

Fortunately, there’s an appliance for that. Humidifiers are gadgets that add moisture back into your air. As their name implies, they achieve this by increasing the humidity (a word for the level of moisture in the air around you) of your surrounding environment. A type of humidifier called a vaporizer does the same thing, but in a slightly different way.

Both humidifiers and vaporizers can help ease the discomfort of air that is too dry. Both can be purchased relatively inexpensively at your local big box store, pharmacy, or online. So how do you choose which type of appliance will work best for you? We took a deep dive into how these products work and the pros and cons of each so that you can make the best decision.

A cool-mist humidifier or steam vaporizer may help equally with cold and flu congestion. Why? The benefit comes from the humidity reaching your irritated nasal passages and lungs. This may help reduce inflammation of your sinus tissue to make breathing feel easier. The case for this is mostly anecdotal, but the logic makes sense.

Humidifiers and vaporizers do the same thing. In fact, as you may have noticed, vaporizers are just a type of humidifier. They’re also used for the same reasons. By the time the water from these devices gets to your lower airway, it’s the same temperature, regardless of how the humidity was generated. The main difference is in their mechanism of action. In general, humidifiers work by creating mist from cold water, whereas vaporizers heat water to create steam.

Choosing the right machine for your household will depend on other factors, such as whether you have young children at home.

One type of cool-mist humidifier uses ultrasonic vibrations to disperse a cool mist of water into the air. Another uses a disk submerged in the machine that is rapidly turned. As it moves, it breaks up the water into tiny particles that can be inhaled.

Mold may also develop if humidity levels in your home are too high — over 50% — or if your humidifier’s filter isn’t clean. Consider purchasing a hygrometer to measure the level of humidity in your home to ward off common allergens.

Pros of humidifiers

  • safe for families with young children and pets
  • affordable and low electricity cost

Cons of humidifiers

  • a filter that isn’t clean can contribute to mold growth
  • air that is too humid can actually trigger allergies and breed mold

Cleaning a humidifier

You’ll want to clean out your cool-mist humidifier daily while it’s in use. The key is to keep ahead of any mineral and bacteria buildup.

The type of water you use may also make a difference. Consider using distilled or purified water versus tap water; treated water contains fewer contaminants.

Try a simple cleaning schedule like the following:

  • Daily: Empty the tank and dry all surfaces. Refill with fresh water.
  • Every third day: Empty the tank and scrub all surfaces with mild dish soap and water to remove scale and other debris. Refill with fresh water.
  • If storing away: Follow cleaning directions in the manufacturer guide. Remove any dirty filters and toss them out. When all parts are dry, store in a dry place.

Purchasing a humidifier

Humidifiers are widely available and very easy to get, if you’re in a pinch. But if you do want to invest in a high-quality option for extended use, it helps to look into specific designs and brands for assistance.

Our top picks for best humidifiers:

What to know about humidifier safety

The main safety concern with cool-mist humidifiers is with the mineral deposits, mold, and other contaminants they may emit into the air. Inhaling these things over time may irritate airways and create further breathing issues.

Using distilled or purified water and cleaning your unit thoroughly and regularly can help lessen these concerns.

A steam vaporizer, or warm-mist humidifier, uses electricity to power a heating element. It boils water and creates steam. The steam cools down before it leaves the machine, enters the air, and reaches the body through your breathing. Some people feel that since the air is boiled before it is condensed into a vapor, that makes this type of appliance more hygienic.

The vapor produced by steam vaporizers doesn’t contain as many contaminants, possibly making it a better choice for those dealing with indoor allergies. Check with your allergist or immunologist for specific recommendations.

You can also add inhalants to this type of humidifier, though this should not be done for babies or young children.

Pros of vaporizers

  • you can boost the vapor with an essential oil or inhalant
  • steam vapor is distilled, so it may have fewer contaminants

Cons of vaporizers

  • hot water is not safe for use around children or pets

Cleaning a vaporizer

Similar cleaning rules apply to steam vaporizers, but the risk of mineral buildup and mold is less of an issue.

Here’s a simple cleaning formula to try:

  • Daily: Empty the tank and dry all surfaces. Refill with fresh water.
  • Weekly: Empty tank and fill with 3 1/2 inches of white vinegar for 10 minutes. Clean any residue off the unit with a mild detergent.
  • If storing away: Follow weekly instructions and make sure all parts are dry before storing away in a cool, dry location. Discard any dirty filters before storing.

Purchasing a vaporizer

As we noted with purchasing humidifiers, be sure to do your due diligence with selecting one that works for you. Brand reviews and customer feedback can help you narrow down the large field.

Our top picks for best vaporizers:

What to know about vaporizer safety

Steam vaporizers don’t emit as many harmful contaminants into the air. That’s because they boil water and release pure steam. The main safety concern with these machines is risk of burns from steam or spilled water.

Try sitting 4 or more feet from a steam vaporizer when it’s in operation to avoid these risks.

HumidifierVaporizer
Adds moisture back into the air?yesyes
Requires frequent cleaning?yesno
Safe for families with children and pets?yesno
Lots of affordable options?yesyes
Uses less electricity?yesno

Here are some of the most commonly asked questions about vaporizers and humidifiers.

Who should buy a humidifier?

Humidifiers are appliances that infuse the air you breathe with moisture. This may lubricate irritated nasal passages (or respiratory passages), which can be comforting during cold, flu, and allergy season. Anyone who experiences discomfort from dry air might benefit from a humidifier.

Who should buy a vaporizer?

A steam vaporizer is a type of humidifier that heats water to the point of steam before diffusing it through the air. Vaporizers have the same potential benefits of humidifiers. People who are sensitive to irritants in the air might like vaporizers better since water that is boiled before being released into the air might be more pure. People who don’t have pets or little kids who might tip over a vaporizer might be interested in this type of humidifier.

Are vaporizers and humidifiers expensive?

Vaporizers and humidifiers are both relatively inexpensive and can vary in price. There are plenty of humidifier options to choose from and most cost less than $100. There are comparatively fewer vaporizer options available, but the ones that you can buy are generally pretty affordable.

Are vaporizers and humidifiers dangerous?

Vaporizers contain a heating component, so they can be dangerous if a pet or child tips the container over. Humidifiers and vaporizers can also cause issues if they are not cleaned frequently and correctly. Beyond those caveats, these appliances are safe for most people to have in their homes.

Can humidifiers cause mold?

Humidifiers add moisture to the air for the purpose of comfortable breathing. Too much humidity in the air can create an ideal environment for mold. Mold can cause health problems and be difficult to get rid of. The EPA recommends keeping the absolute humidity in your home below 50%. You can purchase a hygrometer to easily track what the humidity level is while you run a humidifying device.

Can vaporizers and humidifiers treat asthma?

Vaporizers and humidifiers can help ease discomfort from dry air. They may make it more comfortable to breathe if dry air tends to trigger your asthma. However, the evidence we have about how these devices impact asthma is mostly anecdotal at this point. A vaporizer or humidifier is not a replacement for asthma treatment prescribed by your doctor.

Both cool-mist humidifiers and steam vaporizers can add moisture to the air in your home and help ease your respiratory symptoms without medication. The type you ultimately choose comes down to your personal health, budget, and family considerations.

Whatever the case, be sure to monitor the humidity levels in your environment to avoid aggravating indoor allergies. And clean your machine each day while it’s in use to keep it running safely.