Humidity levels of 30 percent or lower can cause a number of issues, from static electricity to dry skin and nosebleeds. And when cold and flu season hits, dry air can make breathing issues worse.

There are several types of humidifiers you’ll find on the market, including cool-mist humidifiers and steam vaporizers. Both add moisture to the air, helping to ease cold and cough congestion. Both can be purchased relatively inexpensively at your local big box store, pharmacy, or online. The primary difference is the way they introduce moisture to the air. In general, humidifiers work by creating mist from cold water, whereas vaporizers heat water to create steam.

Let’s take a look at some of the differences that might help you make a decision about which is right for you.

Both cool-mist humidifiers and steam vaporizers add moisture to the air effectively. Exactly how they do it is the main difference between the two:

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

If you have children or pets, you may want to stick with a cool-mist humidifier. The hot water inside steam vaporizers may burn if it’s spilled.

That said, the vapor produced by steam vaporizers may be more hygienic, as the water is boiled before it comes out of the machine.

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.

  • 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.

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

  • Daily. Empty 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 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.

All humidifiers are different. Be sure to follow any specific instructions from the manufacturer when taking care of your machine.

Cool-mist humidifiers range in price from around $20 to $50. The price will depend on the size of the humidifier and the features.

You can find a range of options for adults and kids alike. The Crane Cool Mist Humidifier for Kids, for example, comes in a variety of fun animal shapes with vibrant colors. It ranges in price between $30 and $45. Buy it here.

The Tekjoy Premium Cool Mist Humidifier is just under $50. It features a quiet touch panel, 24 hours of operation, and automatic shutoff. Buy it here.

Steam vaporizers are less expensive, with well-rated models ranging in price from $15 to $30. The Vicks One Gallon Vaporizer with Night Light is a bestseller with good reviews that costs $14.99. It runs for between 15 and 18 hours before needing to be refilled. You can find it here.

Another popular option is the Vicks Warm Mist Humidifier. It costs just over $30, but boasts 24 hours of operation and automatic shutoff. Get it here.

If budget is a concern, you may want to go with a steam vaporizer. This type of machine isn’t recommended for children due to risk of burns. But it may be a safe, economical choice for adults, as well as babies who are not yet mobile.

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.

Steam vaporizers, on the other hand, don’t emit as many harmful minerals and other 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 four or more feet from a steam vaporizer when it’s in operation to avoid these risks.

Bottom line: Cool-mist humidifiers are the recommended choice if you have children or pets who might tip over the machine while it’s in use.

While added moisture may ease irritated airways, humidity may also cause indoor allergies. Dust mites are the number one indoor allergen, and they thrive on moisture from any source.

Mold may also develop if humidity levels in your home are too high — over 50 percent — 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.

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.

A cool-mist humidifier or steam vaporizer may help equally with cold and flu congestion. Why? The benefit comes from the humidity reaching irritated nasal passages and lungs.

Both types of machines add moisture to the air and can achieve the same levels of humidity, just in different ways. By the time the water gets to your lower airway, it’s the same temperature regardless of how it was generated.

That said, experts still recommend cool-mist humidifiers over steam vaporizers for children to avoid the risk of burning from steam or spills.

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.

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