If you want to improve the environment inside your home, a humidifier is a great way to go. These devices are affordable and easy to use, and they can even help combat certain health problems. But with so many types and brands available, knowing which humidifier will meet your needs can be a challenge. Keep reading for answers to commonly asked questions, including what does a humidifier do, along with humidifier features to look for and insights from qualified medical and environmental professionals.
What is a humidifier?
A humidifier is a portable electronic device that boosts the humidity inside your home. Specifically, it “adds moisture back into the air of an enclosed space,” explains Carolyn Kwiat, MD, a double board-certified allergy and immunology specialist and internal medicine physician at Mt. Sinai Hospital in New York. “Water is added in the reservoir of the humidifier and then emitted … increasing the total water concentration of a room.”
What does a humidifier do?
A humidifier promotes a more hospitable living environment by raising the humidity in a specific area of your home, like your bedroom or office. They can be used year-round, but Dr. Kwiat says they’re most beneficial during cold weather months. The reason? “In cold temperatures, the air can’t hold as much moisture.”
There are several types of humidifiers (more on that below), but they’re all designed to boost humidity. Increasing the moisture inside your home might seem counterintuitive, especially if you live in a humid area. After all, when it’s humid outside, the air feels hot and sticky. But inside, the results are just the opposite. When used correctly, a humidifier can support your skin, lips and respiratory health. (Click through to learn how a humidifier can help ease sinus congestion that causes an annoying crackling sound in your ear.)
Humidifiers fall into one of the following categories:
- Evaporative humidifiers
- Impeller humidifiers
- Ultrasonic humidifiers
- Steam vaporizer humidifiers
All increase the moisture content of the air inside your home, but they do it in different ways.
Some humidifiers generate a fine spray of water droplets that evaporate, while others blow air through a wetted wick or heat up liquid water until it becomes steam, explains Linsey C. Marr, PhD, a professor of environmental and water resources engineering at Virginia Tech University.
Ultrasonic humidifiers, on the other hand, use sound waves to generate a cool mist, while impeller humidifiers generate moisture by using a rotating disc to fling water against a diffuser, says osteopathic physician Amrita Ray, DO, a board-certified otolaryngologist at Henry Ford Health in Metro Detroit.
Dr. Ray says it’s important to think about the following things before buying a humidifier:
Some people elect to have a central humidifier built into their home’s HVAC unit. “This is the easiest way to humidify your whole home, but is difficult to isolate where you might need humidity the most,” Dr. Ray explains. It’s also expensive to do. Portable humidifiers are typically more affordable (starting at $20) and require less maintenance. (Click through for the best home humidifiers.)
Ease of cleaning
For your humidifier to work properly, you need to clean it regularly. Therefore, you may want to buy a humidifier with large, easy-to-clean components. Dr. Ray says cleaning a humidifier with many small parts can be a hassle. It’s also more likely to collect harmful mold and bacteria. Click through for easy tips and tricks for cleaning your humidifier.
What do you plan on using your humidifier for? The temperature of the mist a humidifier produces can affect your results. The reason: “Heated humidified air may not be as effective as cool mist humidified air in easing nasal congestion type symptoms,” explains Dr. Ray. “However, steam humidifiers are less likely to release airborne pathogens (like mold) due to the high temperature of the vapor.” So they’re an excellent option if you’re trying to limit the spread of viruses and bacteria.
Temperature is also an important consideration if you have mobility issues or a medical condition that affects your fine motor skills. Since the water in steam humidifiers gets boiling hot, it’s likely to burn your skin if it spills. (Click through to learn why humidifier is one of the best ways to stop a runny nose in minutes.)
Most humidifiers are compact and weigh less than 10 pounds, but there are also larger units. Buying a portable humidifier makes a lot of sense if you plan on using it in different areas of your home.
Now that you know what to look for in a humidifier, let’s take a closer look at some of the potential health benefits:
1. They may relieve symptoms of eczema
Eczema is a group of inflammatory conditions that cause dry, itchy and irritated skin. It can affect anyone but is more common in women than men.
“Patients with eczema have difficulty maintaining skin moisture, resulting in chronically dry skin that’s prone to inflammation from environmental allergens and irritants,” says Dr. Kwiat. “These symptoms may be worse in the winter when humidity is low since there is less moisture in the air causing even drier skin.”
Since humidifiers increase the amount of moisture in your environment, they can help keep your skin from drying out. Research backs this thinking up. One study published in the Korean Journal of Dermatology found that women who used a humidifier at home experienced improved skin hydration and skin barrier function. Another, published in the journal Clinical, Cosmetic, and Investigational Dermatology, concluded that using a humidifier, especially during the winter months, helped prevent eczema flares.
2. They may help relieve nasal congestion and nosebleeds
Sinus and nasal issues, like nosebleeds, post-nasal drip and stuffy noses, can affect your sleep and make it hard to breathe. A humidifier is worth considering if you struggle to clear out all that mucus or frequently suffer nosebleeds.
That’s because “keeping your nasal passage and sinuses moist can decrease the sensation of congestion and help prevent nosebleeds,” Dr. Kwiat says. Indeed, when it’s cold outside, you’re more likely to experience a bloody nose. The dry air weakens the sensitive blood vessels inside of your nose, making them more likely to rupture.
Scientists have confirmed that humidifiers keep the nasal mucosa (tissue that lines the nasal cavity) hydrated. And when your nasal passage is moist, it significantly reduces the frequency and severity of nosebleeds. Similarly, increasing the moisture content of mucus with a humidifier helps loosen it, making it easier to eliminate when you cough or blow your nose.
3. They can help you catch more Zzzs
About 50% of adults occasionally snore, but if your partner regularly complains about you sawing logs, it’s important to identify the cause. Though snoring might seem harmless, it affects sleep quality and even your health. Consider that researchers have linked snoring to chronic health problems like high blood pressure and heart disease.
In some instances, snoring indicates an underlying health problem, like sleep apnea. But it can also occur due to environmental factors, like dry air.
Here’s where a humidifier comes into play. Running one in your bedroom at night can help keep your airways moist. And when your airways are sufficiently lubricated, you’re less likely to snore.
A humidifier may even reduce sleep apnea-related snoring. One study conducted by Swedish researchers found that sleep apnea patients who used continuous positive airway pressure (CPAP) machines with built-in humidifiers were more likely to adhere to treatment and experienced fewer upper airway symptoms, like dry mouth, nasal congestion and snoring.
4. They can relieve dry, irritated eyes
Dry eyes are a common complaint among women 50 and older. Hormonal changes caused by perimenopause and menopause often affect the quantity and quality of tears. Because tears naturally lubricate your eyes and prevent irritation, poor tear production can end up leaving your eyes dry and itchy.
“Too little moisture in the air can also cause dry, itchy eyes,” says Dr. Ray. Likewise, if you work at a computer, you might develop computer vision syndrome (CVS), a group of eye problems caused by extended electronics use. Common CVS symptoms include dry, itchy and red eyes. “Proper humidification can help relieve these symptoms,” Dr. Ray says.
Indeed, in a study published in the journal Optometry and Vision Science, people with dry eyes who used a desktop humidifier experienced improved tear-film quality and increased comfort during computer use.
5. They may reduce the spread of illness
Scientists have found that respiratory viruses like influenza (the flu) and COVID-19 remain infectious for twice as long in dry air. That’s because saliva emitted during coughs and sneezes acts as a protective barrier for these viruses, particularly in dry environments.
Running a humidifier in your home may provide an additional line of defense against these airborne pathogens. In fact, a study published in the journal PLOS ONE found that maintaining indoor humidity levels of above 40% significantly reduced the infectivity of virus particles.
6. They can help relieve certain types of headaches
There are many types of headaches, but if you suffer from sinus headaches or dehydration headaches, a humidifier may help.
Remember how we said humidifiers break up and loosen mucus? Since sinus headaches occur because of mucus buildup, increased humidity makes that mucus easier to expel. It also relieves pressure, allowing you to breathe clearly without pain.
Similarly, humidifiers can reduce the risk of dehydration headaches, by helping you stay properly hydrated. Of course, using a humidifier isn’t a substitute for drinking plenty of water, but it can reduce the amount of water your body loses through evaporation.
Tips for keeping your humidifier in top shape
Humidifiers offer a variety of potential health benefits, but to reap those rewards, it’s essential you keep your unit clean. While every humidifier has different maintenance instructions, here are some best practices to follow, according to Dr. Ray:
- Change the water in your humidifier tank often.
- Use distilled or de-mineralized water only. Tap water has minerals that can build up inside the unit, reducing its efficacy and lifespan.
- Never add fragrances, oils or other additives to the water unless your humidifier offers these features.
- Clean your humidifier every two or three days.
- Look for signs of bacterial buildup (e.g., sliminess and/or pink discoloration).
- Replace and clean filters as instructed by the manufacturer.
- Clean the removable, nonelectronic parts of your humidifier with an approved cleaning product, such as white vinegar, 3% hydrogen peroxide (available at most pharmacies) or diluted chlorine bleach.
Here’s a video that provides step-by-step humidifier cleaning instructions:
Avoid these common mistakes
Increasing the humidity of your indoor environment can be very beneficial, but it can also present risks. As a general rule of thumb, “don’t allow indoor humidity to exceed 50% because higher humidity may encourage the growth of mold,” says Jill Heins-Nesvold, MS, National Senior Director Health Systems Improvement and Indoor Air Quality at the American Lung Association. “Excess moisture also promotes bacterial growth, which can trigger asthma and/or allergy issues,” adds Dr. Ray. An indoor humidity gauge, like the ThermPro TP50 (Buy on Amazon, $10.99) can help you monitor indoor humidity levels and provide peace of mind.
Heins-Nesvold also encourages rinsing the tank and other components thoroughly after each cleaning to avoid releasing chemicals into the air. Lastly, she advises, “stop using your unit and contact your healthcare provider if you have respiratory symptoms which you believe are associated with your home humidifier.”
This content is not a substitute for professional medical advice or diagnosis. Always consult your physician before pursuing any treatment plan.
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