What to Look For in a Humidifier – An Update

.This is an update from an article that I posted about a year ago, What to Look For in a Humidifier: the Good, the Bad, the Ugly. As we enter the cold and flu season, as the weather cools down and we turn up the heat at home, at school, and at work, nasal drying and nose-bleeds will become more common. So I thought now would be a good time to review this topic – what to look for in a humidifier.

I group humidifiers roughly into 3 piles:

1- Evaporative

This type of humidifier uses a cloth or mesh belt that acts like a wick: it dips down into a vat of water, then rotates up so that a fan can blow across it and evaporate the water off the belt into the air. Effective way to humidify the air, but these have some downsides.

2- Ultrasonic

This is the so-called “cool mist” humidifiers. These use a small ultrasound transducer to vibrate a stream of water so that the water vaporizes. Effective, inexpensive. These have their own special disadvantages as well.

3- Steam Vaporizer

These are little more than a pot of water with a heating element that boils the water to produce steam. Very effective, but of course, they have their own issues, too.

Most of us are also familiar with the humidifier on our central heating system, if we have forced-air heat. The only thing to keep in mind with those is that the system should be cleaned. How often? I have no idea. The thing to do is to read the instructions for proper maintenance. I have asked several people if they have ever cleaned theirs, and the standard response has been “what?”.

There is another type of humidifier that I have no experience with – the “impeller” humidifier. These produce a cool mist using a rotating disk. I suspect they may have issues similar to the Ultrasonic type of humidifier (see below), but I have no personal experience with them.

So, after years of using these other 3 types of humidifiers in my home, including experience with multiple belt-evaporative humidifiers growing up in my parent’s home, here is my own assessment. My apologies to humidifier manufacturers. No doubt some will take offense at my admittedly simple and anecdotal comparison of these types of humidifiers, but this is based on decades of personal experience, and experience with each of these types of humidifier.

(1) Evaporative

(2) Ultrasonic

(3) Steam Vaporizer

Efficiency

Efficient

Efficient

Less efficient

Construction, Ease of Use

Complex

Simple

Simple

Cost / purchase

$$$$

$$

$

Cost / to run

$$

$

$$

Cleaning

Challenge to Clean

Easy to Clean

Easy to Clean

Microbe risk: mold, etc

++++

++

Boogordoctor endorsement

+

+

+++

 

My Recommendation

My recommendation of Steam Vaporizer Humidifiers is based largely on 1 observation:

Very simply put, we humans are pretty lazy (let’s be generous and call it “forgetful”) when it comes to regular cleaning of things like a humidifier. Maybe it’s just me.

The fact is, unless we clean humidifiers on a regular basis – say, every 2-3 days –  the slimy crud that builds up in the water canister can contain viruses, bacteria, and mold (the worst). For humidifier types (1) and (2), that can be a huge problem.

These types of humidifier can spew into the air ANYthing that is in the water container. And there is nothing about their mechanism that kills “things” that might be in that water.

Contrast that with the Steam Vaporizer type of humidifier. The process of making steam (boiling the water) DOES kill anything that might be in that water container.

This can be very beneficial when we consider the “forgetful” nature of humans, for example, when we “forget” to clean out our humidifier water container (again), for weeks at a time.

The other huge advantage is the low purchase price of Steam Vaporizer humidifiers. We have 5 or 6 of these in our home, and never paid more than $15 for one; some were on sale for $10!!

Regardless of the type of humidifier that you decide to use, keep it clean. You don’t want to use a humidifier thinking that it is a remedy for your child’s sinusitis, only to find out that they contracted a fungal sinus infection from the mold in your humidifier!

How to Keep it Clean

Clean with vinegar – distilled white vinegar – every three days. Be sure to rinse thoroughly.

What Water to Use?

Ideally, you will use distilled or demineralized water. Pretty inexpensive from your regular grocery store.

How Humid Should I Make It?

The ideal humidity level for your home is between 30 and 50 percent.

How Will I Know?

Ask at your hardware store for a “hygrometer” or humidistat. It looks a little like a thermometer, and measures moisture in the air.

Too High / Too Low

You probably already know about humidity that is too low. Winter time nose-bleeds due to drying of the nasal lining.

Humidity that is too high can be a huge problem if you have allergies or asthma. Dust mites love high humidity. Molds love high humidity. Their allergens can trigger asthma exacerbations and allergies.

Final Tips

  • Keep your home humidity between 30 and 50 percent!
  • If you use a humidifier in a bedroom, turn the humidifier off during the day; open up the bedroom to air it out.
  • Don’t let the area around the humidifier remain moist – the wall or carpet may become wet. That is a fine environment for mold to grown.
  • Consider placing your humidifier on a plastic tray that can be cleaned off (vinegar).

Final words of CAUTION:

  • Steam Vaporizers boil water to produce humidity. The heating element will be HOT. Keep these humidifiers out of reach of your little boogorheads!
  • Many people like to use some sort of “medicated” or “mentholated” rub to help decongest little noses. These “rubs” do NOT decongest the nose. Worse: many of the “rubs” contain ingredients that are TOXIC – even lethal – to infants!!For examples, “Camphor-phenique,” Vicks VapoRub, and Bengay, can cause fatal poisoning if swallowed.  Topical camphor can also be absorbed directly through mucus membranes (like the nose), so NEVER use it around the nose or eyes.

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Resources

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Hi, I’m Russell Faust, author of this medical education blog.

Russell Faust, PhD, MD boogordoctor

Image: Russell Faust

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Comments

  1. HI Dr!
    Great story on humidifier basics. May I re-post it on SinusSister.com, crediting you as a guest blogger on the site, and link back to your original story?
    Cheers,
    SS

    • Russell A. Faust, PhD, MD says:

      Sinus Sister,
      Thank you for visiting, and for your kind comments. You are welcome to re-post with link.
      Thank you for asking,
      RF (boogs)

  2. Excellent info on the various kinds; we have used several and found the steam to work the best in the winter months. Good to know the others take more time to clean too. We’ll stick with steam.

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