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When Should I Use a Humidifier?

Sheryl Cannes
Updated on: May 23, 2022

In the right conditions, humidifiers offer a number of health benefits. However, if used at the wrong time or under the wrong circumstances, humidifiers can actually do more harm than good. To take advantage of the full benefits, there are a few things you need to know, including when to use the humidifier.

Humidifiers either emit water vapor or steam to increase a room’s humidity. That humidity relieves dry skin and lips, reduces static electricity, loosens phlegm associated with colds, and can offer some relief from allergies and asthma. We’ve got a few tips to help you decide if, when, and where a humidifier might help you.

Best Times to Use a Humidifier

Cold and Flu Season

Cold and flu season is full of stuffy noses, coughs, and sore throats. Moist, humid air can loosen phlegm and ease a stiff cough to make it more productive. Humidifiers can be especially helpful for those with asthma, who may be more prone to complications with their congestion. There is even some evidence that maintaining a healthy humidity, usually considered between 30 to 50 percent, can decrease your chances of catching the flu.

When Skin and Hair Get Dry

Dry, itchy skin and brittle hair are a constant battle in some climates and for some people in general. A humidifier moistens the air to nourish your body’s outer defenses and get your hair strong and healthy again. Proper humidity can work in conjunction with your skin and hair moisturizers. Many lotions and hair products lock in existing moisture. A humidified home gives those products more moisture to lock-in.

However, a dry climate’s effects can go beyond skin and hair. Bloody noses, for example, are more common in low humidity. The nose’s capillaries get dry and brittle, causing them to easily break and bleed. Using a humidifier correctly can keep your body comfortable and well-moisturized.

In the Winter

The amount of moisture in the air depends on the relative humidity. The relative humidity is the amount of water vapor the air can hold at a certain temperature—warm air holds more water, cold air holds less. That’s why many people suddenly have dry skin and chapped lips once the temperatures start to fall. A humidifier, especially a warm-mist humidifier like a steam vaporizer (also called an evaporative humidifier), is a great option for winter-time dryness.

Best Reasons to Use a Humidifier

To Relieve Asthma Symptoms

Proper humidity levels keep the nasal passages, airways, and throat moisturized. On a day to day basis, that can help maintain calm, relaxed breathing. It becomes even more valuable if a cold or flu sets in. The moisture can loosen tightness in the throat and chest and loosen mucus and phlegm. And, healthy humidity levels can reduce exposure to airborne pathogens.

To Relieve Allergy Symptoms

Dry air can irritate the nasal passages, magnifying allergy symptoms. Add some humidity to the air, and the skin, eyes, and nose are less likely to become irritated and inflamed. Humidifier/air purifier combos are a great option for allergy sufferers. The humidifier soothes the body while the air purifier improves the indoor air quality. Air purifiers filter or capture allergens and odors for better breathability.

In Dry Climates, All the Time

Climates where the humidity is well below 30 percent can negatively affect the skin, nose, and nasal passages in the winter or summer months. An air humidifier to bump up the home’s humidity level can reduce respiratory problems and other common issues associated with dry air. They’re especially helpful when air conditioners or furnaces may further dry the air.

Types of Humidifier

There are two basic humidifier categories—warm-mist humidifiers and cool-mist humidifiers. Sometimes one type is better under certain circumstances than others. You’ll have to decide the type that’s best for your circumstances, climate, and home environment.

Warm Mist Humidifiers

Warm mist humidifiers are also called evaporators, steam vaporizers, or evaporative humidifiers. Steam vaporizers contain a heating element that raises the water temperature until it steams. That steam is then cooled slightly before it leaves the humidifier.

These humidifiers are quieter than cool-mist models and more energy efficient because they use the steam’s natural movement to propel it out of the humidifier. Warm-mist humidifiers also resist mold and bacterial growth because the heat kills either before they can become troublesome. (However, if stagnant water remains in the humidifier, this type of humidifier can be just as problematic as a cool-mist model.) Warm-mist humidifiers are also a great choice for the winter months because the steam helps maintain a warmer air temperature.

Warm mist units pose a risk that cool-mist models don’t. The heating element and hot water can scald you, young children, and pets if the humidifier gets tipped over.

Pros

  • Steam helps maintain a warm room temperature
  • Quiet
  • Resists bacteria, mold, and mildew growth
  • Energy efficient

Cons

  • Can burn or scald if tipped over
  • May be too warm in the summer

Cool Mist Humidifiers

There are more types of cool mist humidifiers than warm mist models, including impeller humidifiers and ultrasonic humidifiers. Impellers have a wheel that throws the water against an impeller (fan), which turns it into vapor. Ultrasonic models use ultrasonic vibrations to break the water into airborne water droplets. Cool-mist models are noisier than warm-mist units, but they’re usually less expensive and don’t pose a scalding hazard.

However, on the down side, they create a breeding ground for bacteria, mold, and mildew growth due to their use of cold water. Proper cleaning and maintenance are important for any humidifier, but especially in cool-mist units. Regular cleaning, disinfecting, and use of clean water makes sure the moist air released by the humidifier isn’t full of organisms that can contribute to rather than help sinus congestion.

These models are a good choice for hot climates, summertime use, and families with children and pets.

Pros

  • Less expensive
  • No burn hazard
  • Good for use in the summer or warm climates

Cons

  • More prone to bacteria, mold, and mildew growth
  • Less energy efficient

FAQs

Should I run my humidifier 24/7?

Under certain circumstances, you can run a humidifier 24/7. You can increase the chances of safely running the humidifier all day and night by buying a model with a built-in hygrometer.

A hygrometer measures humidity levels. Some models also automatically adjust the settings or turn off the humidifier if the humidity levels go beyond a preset percentage.

It’s important to track the humidity levels in your home when constantly running a humidifier. Too much humidity can promote mold growth, which can trigger congestion, coughs, and other symptoms similar to allergies or the common cold.

How often should I clean my humidifier?

Regular cleaning and maintenance are essential to owning a humidifier. The humidifier should be emptied and wiped down every day. Once a week, you’ll need to use a solution of water and vinegar (or hydrogen peroxide) to remove bacteria and mineral buildup. Once a month, it should be disinfected with diluted bleach. (Please note that some manufacturer instructions specifically state not to use bleach. Follow the manufacturer’s recommended cleaning instructions.)

If you don’t use the humidifier regularly, make sure that it’s clean and dry before putting it away in storage.

Can you get a burn from a warm mist humidifier?

The heating element in a warm-mist humidifier gets hot enough to boil water and create steam. If that water gets spilled, it can scald and the heating element to burn. These models aren’t recommended in homes with children or pets because their chances of getting knocked over are much higher.

Conclusion

Humidifiers can be used when needed, like when you get a cold or during the winter when temperatures and humidity drop. They can also be used all day, every day to maintain healthy humidity levels in a dry climate or in a home where the right humidity helps someone with allergies or asthma. These valuable tools give you greater control over the health of your home environment.

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