In the middle of January, when your heater has been running daily for weeks, the air inside your home can feel as dry as Death Valley. You may think using a humidifier will help you stay healthier through the winter, but be careful. A humidifier can make you feel more comfortable, but if not used properly it can make you sick.
Humidifiers add moisture to the air. They are especially popular during the winter months, when central heating units dry the air inside homes. Use of a humidifier makes breathing more comfortable and alleviates dry, itchy skin. Wood floors and furnishings will fare better in properly humidified air, too.
There are three main types of humidifiers. Vaporizers use heat to bring water to a boil and release moisture into the air in the form of steam. Cool-mist humidifiers use a motor to turn water into a mist, which is released into the air. Ultrasonic humidifiers use a fast-vibrating mechanism called a nebulizer to produce a finer mist. The ultrasonic humidifiers are the safest type, but they're also the most expensive.
Vaporizers pose a risk of burns and should not be used in homes with children present. Cool-mist humidifiers pose health risks if not cleaned regularly. The water left sitting in the humidifier can grow mold spores, fungus and bacteria, which will be released into the air the next time the unit is turned on. Also, if tap water is used, minerals or contaminants in the water may be distributed into the air as a fine, white dust, which you may see on your furniture and floors.
Those with allergies and asthma will be especially endangered by the contaminants a humidifier may emit. This could lead to flu-like symptoms or sinus infections. You may eventually have trouble breathing.
An ultrasonic humidifier is generally considered safer than the cool-mist variety because the nebulizer breaks up the mold spores and other contaminants. But this is no guarantee some won't be released into the air anyway.
A humidifier can be used safely if you follow all the manufacturer's directions. This means emptying the water reservoir between uses. Don't simply add water to what's already there. Clean the unit regularly with a brush or scrubber, and watch for buildup on the motor and the sides of the tank. Use distilled water in your humidifier instead of water from the tap and replace any worn parts as needed.
According to the U.S. Consumer Product Safety Commission, room humidity should be kept between 30 and 50 percent. An instrument called a hygrometer can measure the humidity in the air. If you raise the humidity above that level, you may be causing a buildup of moisture in the air, which means bacteria and fungus will settle on your home's surfaces and grow. Your safest alternative may be to not use a humidifier at all.
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