Using a humidifier in the wintertime can be a great fix for the health, comfort, and interior problems caused by dry air. By dispersing an invisible mist of moisture throughout a space, these appliances help relieve dry and itchy skin, moisturize parched respiratory passages, and reduce the amount of static electricity in your indoor environment. However, when not properly cared for and maintained, a humidifier can quickly become a health hazard. Here’s how.
All humidifiers, regardless of their type, carry a risk of bacteria and mold growth. This may be the result of two things: (a.) Failing to clean the humidifier’s components and change the water regularly; and (b.) Filling the humidifier with mineral-rich tap water. When bacteria and mold grow and multiply inside a humidifier, traces of them can be released into the air you breathe.
Additionally, the high mineral content of tap water (when used to fill a humidifier) can cause a dirty film to build up inside the water reservoir. Like mold and bacteria, particulates from this film – which materialize as white dust – can mix in with the moisturizing mist and become part of your indoor air.
If you have allergies or an existing asthma condition, regularly inhaling these impurities can aggravate your symptoms or cause a full-on attack. A more serious side effect is a little-known illness called humidifier lung. Also known as “humidifier fever” and more formally as “hypersensitivity pneumonitis,” this is a lung condition that develops when you inhale vapors contaminated with certain strains of bacteria.
Temporary symptoms of humidifier lung include cough, fever, chills, shortness of breath, body aches, lung inflammation, and malaise. These will typically subside when the cause is corrected. But if you continue to breathe contaminated air day after day, you may develop chronic symptoms such as weight loss, loss of appetite, respiratory infections, lung scarring, and lung disease.
To cut your risk of developing these conditions when you use your humidifier, study up on how to properly maintain it. Remember these tips:
- Change the water in your humidifier daily. Stagnant water is a desirable breeding ground for mold spores and bacteria. Empty and wipe down your unit’s water reservoir every day and refill it with clean, fresh water.
- Use distilled or de-mineralized water to fill your humidifier. Distilled or de-mineralized water has less mineral content than regular tap water. When used, these water types make your humidifier less likely to expel white mineral dust into your indoor air – and less likely for that dust to invade your lungs.
- Clean your humidifier thoroughly every few days. Use a soft-bristled brush and a mild cleanser when cleaning out the inside of your unit’s water tank. Wipe down the exterior with a clean, damp cloth. Wait for all components to dry completely before filling with fresh water and turning on.
- Use a natural cleaning solution to clean your humidifier. This is especially beneficial to allergy- and asthma-sufferers, as well as those who have multiple chemical sensitivities. Harsh chemical cleaners can often leave odors and residues that may irritate symptoms. A better option? Use natural white vinegar, which doubles as a disinfectant and deodorizer, to eliminate mineral buildup and disinfect surfaces.
- Consider investing in a humidifier that uses UV germicidal light. Humidifiers equipped with internal UV lights sanitize the water to kill lingering bacteria and pathogens before they are released into the air.
Some good choices include the Enviracaire EWM-211D warm mist humidifier, which uses a dual process of UV light sanitization and steam vaporization to kill 99.999% of germs, bacteria, and mold spores. This tabletop unit, designed for small- to medium-sized rooms, will not emit any white dust, making it ideal for allergy- and asthma-sufferers.
The Honeywell HCM-300T tower humidifier is a larger-capacity, cool mist unit that uses germicidal light and an antimicrobial-treated filter to kill 99.9% of pathogens. This Consumer’s Digest “Best Buy” produces a clean, soothing vapor that covers 1,050 sq. ft. It’s also 30% quieter than similar units.
If you want to learn more about humidifiers and get help in deciding on the best unit for you, read our new Humidifier Buying Guide.