Now that the FDA issued an advisory in 2008 strongly recommending that over-the-counter cough and cold medications not be given to infants and children under age 2 because of the risk of serious and potentially life-threatening side effects, a humidifier is more important than ever. Using a cool-mist humidifier, saline drops, or a suctioning bulb can relieve your baby’s stuffy nose without drugs. A humidifier can also help ease itchy skin and other problems associated with dry indoor air.
But don’t buy a humidifier if you don’t think you’ll be able to clean and disinfect it regularly. The standing water in a dirty room humidifier is a breeding ground for bacteria and fungi, which can get blown back into the mist that’s released into the room, causing itchy eyes and worsening any breathing problems your baby may have. The more you use a humidifier, the more vigilant you need to be. Here are three ways to safely maintain a tabletop model:
1. Change the water daily. Empty the tank, dry all interior surfaces, and refill with clean water. Don't be swayed by tank size. Generally, the larger the tank, the longer your table-top humidifier can run without running dry. A one-gallon tank may run up to 11 hours; a 1.5 gallon tank may operate up to 20 hours without refilling. But no matter how large the tank, you should change the water daily, so buying a humidifier with a larger tank won't save you a step.
2. Descale your humidifier often. Although some parts may be washable in the dishwasher, they still need to be descaled (demineralized) with vinegar to reduce water-mineral buildup, which can decrease a humidifier's output, especially if you're not using distilled water. They also need to be disinfected with bleach. Completely dry all parts between descaling and disinfecting. And after disinfecting, carefully rinse the tank to avoid breathing harmful chemicals. Follow the manufacturer's directions and schedule for descaling and disinfecting parts and replacing filters, wicks, and the like.
3. Clean it before you store it. And clean it again when you take it out of storage.
Learn more in our child safety and children's health sections.