There are several reasons to consider buying a humidifier. Raising the level of indoor humidity can not only ease cold symptoms but also reduce dry skin and itchy eyes, especially during winter.
Ideally, indoor humidity should be 30 percent to 50 percent. In winter, heating in your home or apartment can cause it to drop as low as 10 percent. If you live in a dry climate or a region where winter means turning up the heat, a humidifier can alleviate discomfort for everyone in the family.
"They can be very helpful for upper respiratory and lower respiratory tract infections," says John Santa, M.D., director of the Health Ratings Center for Consumer Reports. "In a winter environment where you have hot, dry air, a humidifier can loosen secretions and help people expectorate and get rid of both nasal and oral secretions." (Subscribers can find the top-rated models in our humidifier Ratings.)
Of course, adults can also turn to cold remedies and get preventative flu shots, but that isn't an option for very young children. The Food and Drug Administration now recommends that children under the age of 2 not be given over-the-counter cough and cold products. Babies under 6 months shouldn't receive a flu vaccine, either.
Parents looking for a way to give their children some relief can try using a humidifier. Along with a suctioning bulb and saline drops (or a fine mist saline spray designed for babies), a humidifier can make it easier for your baby to breathe, even if she is sick. "Definitely they can help kids with cold symptoms because it can help relieve stuffiness and keep the passages more comfortable," says Jennifer Shu, M.D., a pediatrician in Atlanta and editor of the American Academy of Pediatrics parenting site.
Since viruses can grow more easily in cold, dry air, running a humidifier might help prevent children from getting sick in the first place. "Using a humidifier may kill the viruses faster and create an environment that prevents viruses from thriving," Shu says.
Today's humidifiers are better than earlier models, but tabletop and console models still require frequent maintenance. Changing the water daily, as well as cleaning the reservoir and drying it thoroughly, help prevent bacteria and mold growth. Minerals in tap water can cause an accumulation of scale, which should be removed regularly with vinegar and disinfected with bleach. Filters and wicks require periodic replacement. Note, too, that hard water might reduce some humidifiers' output and increase the buildup of scale. (The hardness of your water is measured by checking how much calcium and magnesium is in it.) Some humidifiers also have lower output with hard water. You can remedy that by using distilled water, which has a lower mineral content than most tap water and can help boost your humidifier's efficiency.