When to Use a Humidifier

Medically Reviewed By William C. Lloyd III, MD, FACS
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Air humidifier in bedroom
humidifier in bedroom as woman sleeps

A humidifier can improve health and physical comfort. Knowing when to use a humidifier—and how to maintain it safely and properly—can improve your overall quality of life.

Cool Mist vs. Warm Mist Humidifiers

Humidifiers release water vapor into the air. The extra moisture in the air can ease coughs and congestion as well as dry, irritated skin. Adequate moisture in the air can also decrease the risk of infection, as viruses and bacteria can’t travel as well in moist air.

All humidifiers include a reservoir for water. The water is dispersed into the air in mist form by a fan, rotating discs, or ultrasonic vibration. Cool mist humidifiers expel cool mist; these humidifiers are recommended for use around infants and children. So-called ‘warm mist humidifiers’ are actually vaporizers; these units include an electric element that heats the water before emitting it as a warm mist. The American Academy of Pediatrics does not recommend the use of warm-mist humidifiers around babies or children, due to the risk of accidental burns.

When to Use a Humidifier for a Baby, Older Child, or Adult

Some people use a humidifier on a regular basis in the wintertime, as air tends to be drier during the winter months. Other people only use a humidifier during periods of illness or to ease specific physical complaints.

The American Academy of Pediatrics does not recommend giving cough or cold medication to children younger than age 6, as the risk of side effects outweighs the potential benefits. As a natural remedy, you can use a humidifier to decrease congestion and cough. Many parents will run a humidifier overnight in the child’s bedroom. You can also use the humidifier during naps and move it to other rooms during the day, if desired.

In older children and adults, humidifiers can also help treat:

  • Sinus congestion
  • Recurrent bloody noses (nosebleeds)
  • Dry, scratchy throat
  • Dry, itchy skin
  • Snoring (A humidifier may not stop snoring, especially in adults, but humidifying the air may decrease snoring. If snoring continues to be a regular issue, consult a physician, as snoring may be a sign of sleep apnea, a serious medical condition that increases the risk of heart disease.)

Potential Risks of Humidifier Use

Cool mist humidifiers are generally quite safe. However, proper care and maintenance of the humidifier is essential. If the water inside is not changed out on a regular basis or the humidifier is not cleaned properly, bacteria and mold can build up inside the unit and be expelled into the air when the humidifier is in use.

You can decrease the risks of humidifier use by changing the humidifier water daily. Empty the unit and allow it to dry before refilling it with clean water. (Distilled or filtered water is preferable to tap water.) Clean the unit every three days during periods of use, following the manufacturer’s instructions. If your humidifier has a filter, be sure to change it as directed.

When used properly, a humidifier is a helpful tool that can be used to increase comfort during times of illness or discomfort.

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Medical Reviewer: William C. Lloyd III, MD, FACS
Last Review Date: 2020 Dec 15
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THIS TOOL DOES NOT PROVIDE MEDICAL ADVICE. It is intended for informational purposes only. It is not a substitute for professional medical advice, diagnosis or treatment. Never ignore professional medical advice in seeking treatment because of something you have read on the site. If you think you may have a medical emergency, immediately call your doctor or dial 911.
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