Published on January 25, 2020

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Photography by Tessa Neustadt, Design by Brady Tolbert

You probably haven’t thought about a humidifier since you were a little kid with a cold. Along with a bowl of soup and plenty of sleep, it seemed to have magically cured you. Even now, with flu and cold season still slugging along and the first signs of spring seemingly miles away, you might be wondering if it would be worthwhile to get your hands on one as an adult. 

But we have to ask: Will it actually make a difference? According to a few studies and two medical professionals, the answer is yes—but maybe not for the reasons you’d expect. Allow us to explain.

First of all, is there a right way to use a humidifier? 

A humidifier is best used in dry climates or during the winter, when heaters make indoor air feel extra-dry, explains Nate Favini, M.D., medical lead at Forward. But you can overdo it. “Making the air too humid can damage your home, particularly by encouraging mold,” he explains. He recommends a target level of 30 to 50 percent humidity (which you can measure with a digital hygrometer).

Natasha Bhuyan, M.D., a physician at One Medical, advises using distilled or demineralized water to avoid buildup in your machine. You should also fully clean it once a week (how you do so will depend on your exact model—some require warm soap and water, and others white vinegar).  

Can a humidifier ease your cold?

“It’s worth saying that there aren’t that many high-quality scientific studies on the impact of humidifiers,” says Favini. “But because cold and flu viruses flourish more easily in dry air conditions, we think that humidifiers can make the spread of these viruses less likely.” A 2013 study found that high humidity could help reduce spread of the influenza virus (aka the flu), but if you’re already infected, humidity isn’t going to cure you. “A cold is caused by a virus and often has to run its course,” says Bhuyan.

But a humidifier might make you feel better. Favini adds that it can help to moisturize your nasal, throat, and lung passages, to ease symptoms like coughing and sneezing. Bhuyan recommends a humidifier for people who suffer from chronic dry sinuses. Because clinical research is limited, trial and error might be your best bet to see if one helps you. 

Can it improve your skin? 

If your skin and hair feel extra-dry during the winter, according to Bhuyan, a humidifier can help you to feel more moisturized all around.  And hey, there’s potential for antiaging effects, too, at least according to one 2007 study that showed a correlation with humidity and smoother skin

Can it help you sleep?

There are few feelings quite as dreadful as coughing yourself to sleep—but a humidifier can help with this problem, too. “Dry air makes us feel even more congested at night,” says Bhuyan. “It makes our mucus thick, and in combination with laying flat, it’s no wonder that many people have trouble getting shut-eye when they have a cold.” If you need a little extra help breathing easy come bedtime, this tool might be just the thing to revolutionize your evening routine.

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