As far as winter chores go, repeatedly scrubbing and cleaning the humidifier is one of my least favorite winter sports. I’d much rather shovel snow, de-ice my windshield, or even disposing of frozen vermin that have found their way onto my porch, anything but the tedium of washing, scouring, and rinsing the damn humidifier. But winter, at least where I live in the frosty Northeast, means that the humidity levels drop considerably when the heat cranks up. This makes for a rather uncomfortable night’s sleep, especially if you, or your children, are suffering from a cold or sinus unrest. So, out comes the humidifier spewing its particulate rain into the air and providing some relief for our parched airways.
Humidifiers have long been first line of defense for anyone looking for relief from cold and flu symptoms. The kid starts hacking and sniffling. Put a humidifier in his/her room and hope for the best. Well now comes a report in this week’s Pediatrics (authored by Ameet Daftary, assistant professor of pulmonology at the University of Utah School of Medicine) that projects a good deal of skepticism on the practice. The report mainly focuses on a 6-month-old child who developed serious lung problems after his parents put an ultrasonic humidifier in his room to ease cold symptoms (this case being somewhat of an anomaly, should not be construed as a reason to freak out over the health risks of ultrasonic humidifiers), but then goes on to reveal that there is no scientific proof that the use of humidifiers assists in the relief of cold, flu and sinus symptoms.
Basically this study is inconclusive about the benefits, if any, of using a humidifier to combat the discomfort that goes along with the aforementioned sicknesses. But as with the chicken soup remedy or the idea that a dozen Emergen-C packets can escort you gracefully through a cold, the benefits of the humidifier may largely be in our head. As for the dangers, In the early 1990s, (as reported by NPR) investigations by the Environmental Protection Agency and the Consumer Product Safety Commission found that humidifiers can spew out bacteria, fungus, and tiny particles of heavy metals into the air, but determined that the humidifiers don’t pose a “serious health risk.” But there does exist somewhat of a risk (however low), especially with the warm-air or steam humidifiers, which heat the water vapor and provide a nice little breeding ground for airborne bacteria.
Does this mean that you should shelve your humidifier, or throw it out into the snow? Not quite. While there are no real proven scientific benefits that show using a humidifier will help at all, there are enough people out there that swear by them. While I have my doubts, and find the task of cleaning the damn machines to be anti-therapeutic, I cannot wholly dismiss them. That said, I have (like everyone) suffered through cold and sinus problems and have found that a nice hot shower, or the daily use of a Neti pot helps enormously to keep things flowing and vital.
Do you swear by humidifiers or are they largely unnecessary? Do you think the risk of harboring airborne pathogens cancels out the benefits of humidifiers? Do you have other time-tested methods for dealing with colds and sinus discomfort in your house? What brings comfort to you and your children during these times of winter unpleasantness?