Should You Use a Humidifier? That Depends

Healthy Living

January 17, 2023

Frigid weather is rough enough on its own, but the dryness of winter air can make it doubly unpleasant. If winter has left you with a scratchy throat, itchy eyes and cracked hands, you may be desperate for relief. Common advice includes adding a humidifier to your room.

But think twice before you do that. 

There may be some health benefits to humidifying your room, but these appliances have drawbacks as well. Weigh the pros and cons before you commit to daily humidifying.

Disclaimer: The following is meant as information only and shouldn’t be used to diagnose or treat any condition, including allergies. Talk to a doctor if you have concerns about your health.

The Health Benefits of Humidifiers

Many people believe that humidifiers can make their living spaces more comfortable thanks to the moistened air. When winter sucks the moisture out of the air, you may benefit from adding that moisture back in with the help of a handy device. Specific benefits may include:

  • Improved respiratory symptoms
  • Relief from skin irritation
  • Fewer electric shocks

Improved respiratory symptoms

Respiratory irritation is one of the most common reasons that people choose to run humidifiers. Adding moisture to the air may provide relief for dry, runny or congested noses. It can soothe tickly throats, too.

If you’re someone with allergies or asthma, then breathing easier may be especially important to you. It’s possible that a humidifier could help.

But even those without allergies and asthma might want a humidifier when sick. The extra humidity could make your nose feel a little less stuffy or your throat a little less scratchy.

Relief from skin irritation

Cold weather and dry, cracked skin often go – pun intended – hand in hand. If you’re tired of itchy legs and chapped hands, consider humidifying your home. Some research shows that this approach can be effective, at least for older adults.

Your hair might benefit for similar reasons. If it has become dull and dry, humidity could help restore its soft shine.

Fewer electric shocks

In the winter months, it’s common to touch an object and get a static shock in return. That’s because free electrons don’t travel easily through dry air. Instead, they may collect on you until you touch a friend or a metal doorknob. Zap!

In higher humidity, electrons can move more freely through the air. You’re less likely to end up carrying a load of excess electrons, and the shocks should die down.

The Downsides of Using a Humidifier

When you consider the potential benefits, a humidifier sounds pretty great. And while these relatively affordable devices offer some hefty pros, there are some cons to consider, too. These include excess humidity and allergy triggers.

Excess humidity

A little humidity is a good thing. Too much humidity can be a problem. Mold, mildew and bacteria thrive in damp environments. If you have the humidifier cranked too high, your room might become a breeding ground.

Allergy triggers

The wet insides of your humidifier can be a hospitable environment for these organisms, too. That’s a problem since whatever is inside your humidifier ends up sprayed out into the air.

Breathing in mold and bacteria isn’t great for anyone. But it’s especially problematic for people with allergies or asthma. Humidifiers can turn from helpful to harmful pretty quickly if mold and bacteria start to grow.

In some cases, dirty humidifiers can even lead to a condition called “humidifier fever.” This illness may cause aches, fevers and other flu-like symptoms.

6 Tips for Safe Humidifier Use

To make a smart decision about humidifier use, you’ll want to know what you’re getting into. Take a look at the recommended guidelines before you commit to a humidifier.

#1) Pick the right type.

There are several humidifier styles on the market. If safety is a top priority, then look over the specs carefully before you buy:

  • Steam humidifiers heat the water to create steam that will humidify the room.
  • Evaporative humidifiers push water through a filter, which in turn evaporates the water and produces humidifying water vapor.
  • Ultrasonic humidifiers use high-speed ultrasonic vibrations to turn liquid water into water vapor.

Humidifiers that heat the water aren’t recommended for homes with young children. While the water vapor is cooled before leaving the machine, an accident could put kids in contact with the boiling water inside. Use a cool-mist humidifier for kids instead.

There are some concerns about the long-term safety of ultrasonic humidifiers, though. They break down everything, including mold, bacteria and hard-water minerals. Those tiny particles then go into the air.

#2) Use distilled water.

Tap water is cheap, but it may contain many minerals and other impurities. Use bottled, distilled water instead.

Distilled water produces purer water vapor. Also, less mineral buildup will accumulate on the humidifier’s parts or settle on your furniture as a fine white powder.

#3) Clean and disinfect regularly.

When you become a humidifier owner, cleaning needs to become a top priority. Experts say that you should wash a humidifier’s parts every one to three days.

Use gentle soap and hot water for the job. Make sure to scrub well to remove any traces of buildup.

Frequent cleaning sessions are especially important for ultrasonic humidifiers. Otherwise, you risk spraying aerosolized germs into the air around you.

Around once a month, perform a deeper clean to disinfect the machine. You may need to use bleach or hydrogen peroxide. Don’t guess, though. Consult the owner’s manual to see what the manufacturer recommends, since machines vary and may react differently to different chemicals.

#4) Change out the water.

Each day, even if you don’t plan to clean the unit, dump the humidifier’s water tank. You might feel like you’re sending pennies down the drain — especially if you buy bottled water — but it’s better than risking bacteria buildup in the water.

#5) Swap the filter.

If your humidifier uses a filter, change it regularly. The owner’s manual should tell you how often to swap it out. Some need to be replaced monthly. Others may be good for up to six months.

#6) Monitor the humidity level.

The goal of using a humidifier is to raise the humidity level in the room, but you don’t want to overcorrect. High humidity can cause a whole new set of problems.

Some people’s asthma and allergy symptoms flare up when the humidity gets too high. Also, mold and mildew flourish in moist areas. Excessive moisture can even damage wooden furniture and window frames.

In the winter months, aim for a humidity level of 30% to 40%. During the summer, you can keep the humidity a little higher, usually around 40% to 50%.

Some humidifiers are equipped with a hygrometer. That’s a tool for measuring humidity levels. If yours doesn’t have a built-in hygrometer, you can purchase a digital variety to set on a nearby shelf.

In addition to using a hygrometer, keep your eyes open for signs of excess dampness. If moisture starts settling around your humidifier, turn down the output level.

Humidifier Alternatives

By now, you may have decided that a humidifier is more trouble than it’s worth. If keeping up with frequent cleanings feels like more than you can handle, you might be looking for an alternative. Luckily, you’ve got options.

To tackle respiratory dryness, try saline nasal products instead. Drops will lubricate your nose without any of a humidifier’s potential side effects. Saline drops are generally safe for most people, including kids. Drinking plenty of water can also keep your nose and throat from feeling as dry.

Water consumption isn’t so effective at remedying dry skin, though. If you opt not to use a humidifier, keep your skin soft with moisturizers and other skincare products. Make sure you get moisturizers suited for winter air and your skin type. If in doubt, ask a dermatologist.

Keep in mind that it’s not all-or-nothing when it comes to humidifier use. Given the pros and cons, you may decide to plug it in for bouts of the sniffles in lieu of everyday use. And that’s okay. 

Just check in with your doctor if you start experiencing new symptoms or the humidifier doesn’t alleviate your current problems. You may have something else going on that needs to be addressed.