Exploring the health benefits vs. hazards of humidifiers

By Jennifer Fabiano, AccuWeather staff writer

Cold, dry winter air can be harmful to your body, and obvious effects like dry skin and eyes can be frustrating. However, less visible effects can be more than annoying; they can be dangerous.

Mucosal membranes, such as the nose and oral cavities, can become dry, which is harmful as that dries out “little hair-like cells called cilia, which are like little brooms that help sweep foreign invaders out,” said Dr. Clayton Cowl, chair of the Division of Preventive Occupational and Aerospace Medicine at the Mayo Clinic in Rochester, Minnesota. Foreign invaders are organisms like viruses, bacteria and dust mites.

Breathing dry air can irritate the respiratory track, leading to coughing, nasal congestion and stuffiness. For those with chronic respiratory conditions such as asthma, dry air can further dry out their oral pharynx, leading to exacerbated symptoms.

Home humidifiers can be an asset to those suffering from respiratory-type ailments.

Humidifier on window


“Humidifiers are a part of a variety of things that people can do to feel better and to potentially prevent upper respiratory infections," said Cowl.

However, those using humidifiers in their homes must do so with caution. Anything that affects breathing air must be monitored closely. When it comes to using humidification in your home, balance is key.

Air that is too humid can also be unsafe. Levels of humidification that are too high can cause additional breathing issues.

“Too much moisture inside a home is not good because it has higher rates of growth of things like dust mites,” said Cowl.

A high humidity rate in the home can also lead to mold growth.

“If you don’t take care and service [the humidifier], it’s essentially blowing fungal elements around a room that obviously you wouldn’t want.”

Hygrometers, devices that measure the relative humidity in a room, are the best way to make sure humidity levels in your home are safe.

Cowl recommends using the hygrometer to keep living spaces at 45 to 55 percent relative humidity for maximum comfort and safety.

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The other important factor in humidity safety is to make sure that the machines are kept clean, as some humidifiers require daily cleaning. Cowl recommends strictly following manufacturer recommendations and changing filters as directed.

“If you don’t maintain a humidifier appropriately, and mostly that’s from neglect, if you don’t appropriately clean it, replace the water reservoir as directed, you can actually get fungal growth or mold in the units themselves,” said Cowl.

The water used in humidifiers is also an important factor. The use of water with large amounts of minerals in it can result in “microscopic amounts of calcium products that are spread over furniture or other areas inside a home if not maintained appropriately.”

Distilled or demineralized water is recommended to avoid this outcome.

In addition to portable humidifiers, there are some that are hard-wired into homes. It is equally important to clean these devices frequently.

“It’s important to have a regular maintenance schedule of things that are replaceable items in your HVAC (heating, ventilation and air conditioning) system,” said Cowl.

With proper humidifier cleaning and maintenance, the health benefits reach as far as adding moisture to certain parts of the body that may need it during dry months.

“Humidifiers are great, they may provide additional comfort, but medically they’re not going to prevent infections,” said Cowl.

For more safety and preparedness tips, visit AccuWeather.com/Ready.

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