Humidifier Benefits: What Does a Humidifier Do and Why You Need a Humidifier in Your Bedroom

/ December 18, 2018

Staying warm in the winter comes at a cost—and we don't mean just your heating bill. Flaky skin, itchy eyes, scratchy throats, and nosebleeds are just a few of the symptoms that kick in when you fire up your home's furnace or radiators for the season.

Winter's discomforts don't have to keep you up at night. There's an easy way to instantly improve indoor air quality for a more comfortable night's sleep: a humidifier.

“Humidifiers basically are aimed at returning the atmosphere to something that is closer to what we experience when there is no heating or cooling of the air," explains David Rapoport, MD, director of the Sleep Medicine Research Program at the Icahn School of Medicine at Mount Sinai. With a humidifier in the bedroom, you'll breathe better, itch less, and maybe even keep colds and flu at bay. Here's why.

What does a humidifier do and how does a humidifier work

A humidifier's job is simple: add moisture to the air. Generally, there are two types of humidifiers: cool mist and warm mist. Cool mist humidifiers tend to be either evaporative (they produce moistened air) or ultrasonic (a high frequency shakes up water and releases droplets into the air).

Warm mist humidifiers create warm moisture from boiling water. The most common types are steam and vaporizer humidifiers, says Rebecca Park, RN, nurse and founder of the blog RemediesForMe.

Either one will get the job done, but the choice depends on how much maintenance you want to do and whether you have children at home (in that case, a cool mist humidifier, which has no heating element, might be safer).

Benefits of a humidifier

Because they produce moisture, humidifiers help to eliminate the dry air that can cause irritation, inflammation, and pain in your nose and throat come winter.

“The nose is an extraordinarily efficient humidifier," explains Rapoport. “The air that gets to our lungs has to be humid or we get very uncomfortable." But even the nose has a limit—in an extremely dry room, he says, "you overwhelm the ability of the nose to hydrate the air."

As a result, you could end up with a sore throat, nosebleeds, and common cold symptoms like a stuffed nose, since dry air increases mucus production and keeps it thick. What's more, when your throat is dried out, it's more susceptible to infection. “Dry mucous membranes in the nose and throat makes it difficult for the membranes to catch the germs from entering into your lungs," says Park.

To recap, adding moisture back into the air:

  • Helps keep the respiratory tract moistened and comfortable;
  • Prevents dry nasal passages and throats that can make you more susceptible to infection;
  • Reduces symptoms of asthma and colds or flu (since moist air keeps mucus thin, making it easier to expel);
  • Decreases the chance of nosebleeds.

Potential drawbacks of humidifiers

While humidifiers certainly have their benefits when it comes to sleep, they're not without their drawbacks. The big issue is maintenance. Water that's left sitting around in the device can lead to the growth of bacteria and mold. "Legionella pneumophila is a type of bacteria that can cause pneumonia," Park says, noting that the risk is not as present with warm mist humidifiers, which reduce contamination by heating the water.

No matter which kind of humidifier you choose, though, make sure to clean it regularly, says Rapoport, to help avoid mold and bacteria growth, which can also contribute to allergies. Many humidifier tanks are dishwasher safe, he notes, though be sure to follow the cleaning directions on your device. Make sure to clean the filters, too, says Park.

You also might need to vacuum the area surrounding your humidifier. “Minerals in water that is evaporated can fall as white dust," says Park. To minimize the possibility, you can use distilled water. “Distilled water has less mineral content, thus decreasing the chance of white dust."

The other issue with humidifiers? You run the risk of the device causing too much moisture in the air, which can lead mold and dampness to accumulate on windows and walls, says Park. If you see droplets forming, it's a sign to turn down the dial.

Warm mist humidifiers, in particular, can also become scalding hot, which can come with a risk of fire, Rapoport says. In fact, the National Institutes of Health recommends using a cool mist humidifier to avoid the risk of burning.

Sleeping with a humidifier

Humidifiers aren't for everyone, nor are they necessities for a good winter's night rest. If you sleep easy come cooler, drier weather, you likely don't need one, says Rapoport. But if you're noticing symptoms—a dry throat or skin, nosebleeds, or if you have a cold—it's worth amping up the humidity to find out if a little moisture can do you a lot of good.

Consider these three humidifiers:

  • Honeywell Germ-Free Humidifier. “It is relatively inexpensive, easy to clean, easy to refill, and nearly silent on the lowest setting," says Park. Because it's a cool most humidifier, it also doesn't use as much electricity, she notes.
  • Vicks Warm Mist Humidifier. If you must have warm mist, this top-rated Amazon pick is a warm mist humidifier that's also affordable, clocking in at just about $34.
  • Levoit Ultrasonic Humidifier. You'll pay a little more (about $85) but you'll get features such as a display that lists the actual humidity in the room ("The Environmental Protection Agency recommends a humidity levels of 45% to 50%," Park says), a remote control, and a super-quiet hum.

Something else that can help you sleep this winter? A weighted blanket. Here, learn how weighted blankets work.

Cassie Shortsleeve

Cassie Shortsleeve is a Boston-based freelance writer and editor with a decade's worth of experience reporting for the country's top health, travel, and parenting magazines. She's also the founder of Dear Sunday, an online platform for new and soon-to-be moms. She lives in Boston, MA with her husband and their daughter Sunday.

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