By Wendy Manwarren
Let’s clear the air: Dry indoor air during cooler months may be contributing to your seasonal sore throats, congestion and other respiratory infections. To be sure, cranking up the thermostat causes the humidity level in your house to drop. When it falls below 35 percent, mucous membranes dry out, making you more susceptible to inhaling fine particles that may carry viruses. But a humidifier can be a breath of clean air for your health -- and your home.
First, buy a quality hygrometer (available at hardware stores, from $5) to constantly monitor your in-house humidity level, which should stay between 35 and 50 percent. Too much can contribute to mold-spore growth and be bad for your health, too. If the humidity is too low, consider purchasing a room humidifier.
Which Type of Humidifier Is Right for You?
Evaporative cool-mist humidifier. The most widely available and least expensive among humidifiers, evaporative humidifiers use a fan to pass dry room air through a water-soaked wick filter in the base of the unit. The water evaporates into the air while the wick filter traps any impurities and minerals in the water. The cool air lowers the room’s temperature, making it easier for you to breathe, which is why evaporative humidifiers also tend to be a physician favorite. “Think about it this way: When you go outside on a cold day, your nose usually runs because the cold shrinks your mucous membranes,” says Dr. Amy Guiot, a clinical instructor of pediatrics at Cincinnati Children’s Hospital Medical Center. “The cool air from an evaporative humidifier has a similar effect.”
Warm-mist humidifier. Quieter than evaporative humidifiers (there’s no fan), warm-mist models heat water to a boil and disperse a hot, impurity-free steam into the air, making a cool room feel considerably warmer. But Guiot says she wouldn’t recommend warm-mist humidifiers to those suffering from any respiratory infection, since heat causes mucous membranes to swell rather than shrink and drain.
Ultrasonic humidifier. Often dubbed the quietest humidifier around, ultrasonic models use high-frequency sound waves and a demineralization cartridge to break down water into an ultrafine, mineral-free vapor. Some ultrasonic humidifiers are also equipped with a heating option.
Features to Think About When Shopping for a Humidifier
1. Tank size and shape.
A humidifier should be sized appropriately for the room. Typically, removable tanks range from 1- to 4-gallon capacities (which refer to the gallons of moisture the humidifier will expel into a room daily). Humidifiers are rated for square footage, so measure your room before settling on a model. If the humidifier is too large for the room, condensation will appear on the interiors of the windows and invite bacteria and mildew to grow. Too small, and you won’t reap any of its benefits. If you want to avoid the fuss of lifting and carrying potentially heavy refill containers, opt for a unit with an easy pour-in feature.
2. UV anti-microbial humidifiers.
Some humidifiers -- both cool- and warm-mist models -- now feature UV light designed to kill 99.9 percent of bacteria, germs and viruses in the water before they enter the air you breathe.
3. Indicator lights.
Look for a model equipped with a light to signal when the tank needs to be refilled or -- better yet -- a humidifier that automatically shuts off when the refill container is empty.
Once you have a humidifier, make sure to take care of it! It needs to be cleaned and dried regularly. Follow the manufacturer’s instructions for filter changes and cleaning guidelines; improper care could pump bacteria and mold spores into the room.
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