image of mom and child reading a book next to a humidifier

Humidifiers for Respiratory Infections: Are They Helpful or Harmful?

We’ve all been there. Our child gets an upper respiratory infection, which causes nasal congestion, difficulty breathing through their nose, and cough. This always gets worse at night when they (and we) are trying to sleep. What’s a parent to do? Many of us instinctively plug in the humidifier and run it in their bedroom at night. Pediatricians often recommend this as well. But does this actually do anything?

It’s difficult for young children to effectively blow their noses and remove all the mucous when they’re sick. In addition to already feeling lousy from being sick, stuffy noses often interfere with sleep and after a few restless nights, everyone in the house feels like a zombie. Winter air is dry due to cold outdoor temperatures and use of indoor heating. The dryness can make mucous even more difficult to blow out or cough up. Hence, adding humidity to the air makes sense. But as with many things in parenting and medicine, there is actually no good evidence to support the use of humidifiers for treatment of upper respiratory infections.

So what’s the harm? Actually, there are many ways that use of a humidifier can actually make things worse:

  • Allergies and asthma: Dust mites and mold both love humid environments. Anyone with allergies to either should not use humidifiers as this can promote growth and worsen allergy or asthma symptoms.
  • Infection: Inappropriately cleaning humidifiers or use of tap water can cause bacteria and microbes to grow and be released into the air. It is important to thoroughly clean humidifiers every 1-3 days AND change the filter at least weekly.
  • Chemicals: Bleach or other strong chemicals should never be used for cleaning as any residue can be released in the air once the humidifier is turned on and worsen respiratory symptoms. Dish soap and water should offer plenty of cleaning power.
  • Burns: Warm/hot humidifiers should never be used as this can cause burns if a curious child tips over the humidifier and spills water out. Cool water or ‘cool mist’ humidifiers should only be used, especially with young children and infants.
  • Stick to water: Essential oils or vaporubs should never be placed into the humidifier. This can release chemicals into the air which can irritate the upper and lower respiratory tract, causing worsening symptoms. Stick with distilled water.

If used properly by following the tips above, and according to manufacturer instructions, using humidifiers will not likely be harmful. It is possible that some benefit will come as well, but there are other tricks to try instead of, or in addition to, the humidifier.

  • Nasal saline: Placing nasal saline sprays or drops directly into the nasal passageways will always be more effective than dispersing humidified air throughout a room. This is a safe treatment that can provide clear noses for little ones (at least temporarily). You know you’ve done it correctly when snot comes flying out or a bit of coughing occurs.
  • Whole house HVAC: Many heating units allow for adjustments to the humidity level, which can add moisture throughout the entire home without the maintenance or upkeep necessary for portable humidifiers.
  • Don’t crank up the heat: Hotter air is generally much dryer. It may be worthwhile to turn down the temperature at night and use an extra blanket instead.
  • Hydration: It is essential that kids stay adequately hydrated. This can help soothe irritated nasal membranes and sore throats. A good test is making sure urine is clear. Any color or strong odor suggests that hydration level is not ideal. Water is perfect – no need to use sugary sports drinks or juice.

As always, your child’s personal doctor is the best resource for specific treatment recommendations, but hopefully these tips will help reduce your sleepless nights this winter.

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David Stukus, MD
Dr. David Stukus is an Associate Professor of Pediatrics, Section of Allergy and Immunology, at Nationwide Children’s Hospital. Dr. Dave, as his patients call him, is passionate about increasing awareness for allergies and asthma. His personal life is filled with fun and chaos as he is married to a Pediatric Emergency Room physician and they have 2 energetic children. His rare free time is spent following his beloved Pittsburgh and Ohio State sports teams. Follow Dr. Dave on Twitter @AllergyKidsDoc for great allergy/asthma tips!

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