The next time you find yourself suffering with a cough, your doctor may recommend that you use a humidifier. Humidifiers are a relatively inexpensive and safe way to help relieve a cough, whether it is caused by dry air or an infection such as a cold or the flu. However, there are several things you should know so you can get the most benefit from these devices and avoid some of the dangers that can occur with their use.
Types of Humidifiers
A humidifier moisturizes the air, which helps keep your mouth and throat moist and less irritated. It can also help loosen secretions in your throat and lungs, so they are easier to cough up. Both warm- and cool-mist humidifiers can be helpful, and there are no studies that recommend one over the other. Therefore, the choice between cool or warm mist comes down to personal preference. Beware of burns when using warm-mist humidifiers around children or pets. Some humidifiers feature a humidistat, which allows you to control the amount of humidity -- ideally 30 percent to 50 percent. You can also choose between a simple table-top humidifier for a single room or larger versions that humidify several rooms or even the entire house.
Mold and Bacteria
Mold grows in moist areas, and therefore humidifiers can provide a welcome environment for these organisms. They can then enter your lungs when you breathe in the humidified air, leading to an infection. Stagnant water can harbor the growth of bacteria as well, and cases of Legionnaires disease have been associated with humidifier use. After each use of your humidifier, clean it and allow it to dry completely before reusing it or storing it away.
A study released in the January 2014 issue of “American Journal of Respiratory and Critical Care Medicine” described a lung disease associated with the use of certain humidifier disinfectants. Lung injury in these children resulted in shortness of breath, rapidly worsening lung symptoms and even death. Presumably the disinfectants left deposits in the humidifier that were then dispersed through the humidified air into the children. So, follow the manufacturer’s instructions and only use cleaning agents that are recommended in the instructions.
Part of a Supportive Regimen
If your cough is caused by an infection, a humidifier is considered supportive treatment, meaning it offers comfort but does not affect the course of an illness. There are other supportive measures you can use for a cough, as well. They include getting plenty of rest, drinking plenty of fluids and avoiding cigarette smoke. Cough drops or hard candy may also provide relief.
When a Humidifier Is Not Enough
If a cough becomes serious or won't go away, it’s time to put the humidifier aside and head to your doctor’s office. A cough can be due to a range of illnesses such as pneumonia, acid reflux, asthma or even heart disease. Therefore, seek immediate medical attention if your cough has lasted more than 2 weeks or if your cough brings up thick, discolored mucus or blood-tinged fluid. Also obtain immediate medical care if your cough is accompanied by a high fever, chest pain, wheezing or difficulty breathing.
- Healthychildren.org: Children and Colds
- Centers for Disease Control and Prevention: Treat Dry Cough
- Allergy: Hypersensitivity Pneumonitis Due to an Ultrasonic Humidifier
- Eurosurveillance: Humidifier-Associated Paediatric Legionnaire’s Disease
- American Journal of Respiratory and Critical Care Medicine: Disinfectant-Associated Children's Interstitial Lung Disease.
- Centers for Disease Control and Prevention: Get Smart: Know When Antibiotics Work
- American Family Physician: Cough: Diagnosis and Management
- Consumer Reports: Humidifier Buying Guide