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Can Humidifiers Help with Allergies?

Can humidifiers help with allergies - featured. A humidifier in the foreground with a woman holding a tablet while lying on a sofa in the background

Sufferer of allergies? Then you’ll be keen to try anything that could relieve your symptoms. Could a humidifier help? We find out

If you’re an allergy sufferer, or down with a cough and congestion, you’re likely to be on the hunt for ways to relieve your symptoms. And one of the first products you might think to turn to is a humidifier. Not to be confused with a dehumidifier, humidifiers release steam and/or water vapor into the air to increase moisture levels and humidity in a room. But can they help with allergies?

Humidifiers have a variety of benefits, and can help to ease the symptoms of airborne allergies by reducing the dryness in the air. This in turn makes it easier to breathe. But how exactly do humidifiers help with allergies? And are there other options that might be better for relieving your symptoms? We investigate below.

What is a humidifier?

A humidifier is an appliance that releases steam and/or water vapor into the air to increase moisture levels. Don’t confuse it with a dehumidifier, which is designed to draw moisture out of a room.

There are a variety of humidifiers on the market, with the following being the most common types:

  • Evaporators – These use a fan to blow air through a moistened absorbent material, thus adding moisture to the air.
  • Central humidifiers – Built into the HVAC (air conditioning) system, central humidifiers control the humidity of an entire building.
  • Impeller humidifiers – These utilize a rotating disk to create and distribute a cool mist.
  • Steam vaporizers – Using electricity, steam vaporizers create a warm mist of steam, which is cooled in the unit before being sprayed out into the air.
  • Ultrasonic humidifiers – These use ultrasonic vibrations to create a cool mist – but there’s currently some debate on whether the mineral particles that are produced as a by-product may have a negative effect on lung health.

Do humidifiers help with allergies, coughs and congestion?

Well, yes and no, as Sophie Vergnaud, MD and senior medical director at GoodRX Health explains: “Running a humidifier may help you feel more comfortable if your home air is dry and you’re struggling with allergy or other cold symptoms. Humidifiers release moisture into the air, which can soothe irritated nasal and throat tissues. A humidifier can also help thin out nasal mucus, so that it’s easier to clear out, which relieves congestion. But they don’t work for everyone and they’re not without their risks.”

Can humidifiers help with allergies. Woman holds tissue to nose as she sneezes

As well as soothing symptoms, humidifiers can also help to reduce airborne allergens. As they release mist and vapor into a room, some allergen particles will become trapped in the water droplets, which will carry them to the floor or a nearby surface. Humidifying the air can also help soothe eczema and dry skin, asthma, coughs and ease breathing difficulties – though they should always be used alongside any recommendations from your doctors.

Are there any drawbacks to humidifiers?

“Too much humidity can make allergies and asthma worse”, explains Sophie Vergnaud. “And not cleaning and caring for your humidifier properly can also make things worse; humidifiers can be breeding grounds for bacteria and mold, which pose serious health risks.”

As such, Vergnaud suggests investing in a humidity detector (hygrometer) to keep track of humidity levels, and using a humidifier only if the humidity level is under 40%. “When choosing a humidifier, look for ones with the stamp of approval from the Asthma and Allergy Foundation of America (AAFA)”, she adds.

Note that humidifiers require maintenance, too. “Humidifiers require a lot of upkeep”, says Vergnaud. “For many people, they’re just not worth the hassle. They need to be cleaned every few days, and the filter needs replacing every 6 months.”

Changing the filter can be time-consuming and expensive, and water can become stagnant or even accumulate impurities if it isn’t monitored properly. If you don’t maintain the filter properly, the moist environment can also lead to the build-up of bacteria and fungus. Those who live in an area with hard water may find that white dust can settle in their home, potentially causing more health issues. Of course, this can be avoided by using distilled or filtered water.

Dust mites also thrive in moist conditions, so you could end up causing more harm than good if you’re allergic to them. And, of course, humidifiers can’t actually eliminate allergens from the air; they’re just soothing the symptoms of allergies.

Is an air purifier a better choice than a humidifier?

Air purifiers are designed to filter the air, removing both particles and harmful gases. They remove pollutants such as dust, pollen, pet dander and volatile organic compounds, or VOCs, which can irritate the airways. They work by using fans to draw air through filters, which then trap the allergens before recycling cleaner air into the room. But do they help with allergies?

“Both air purifiers and humidifiers may offer relief from allergy symptoms. But they do different things: Humidifiers add moisture particles to the air, while air purifiers remove small particles from the air in your home, like dust mites or pollen”, says Vergnaud.

Can humidifiers help with allergies. Hands of person changing the HEPA filter in an air purifier

“Air purifiers, especially units with a HEPA filter, can help ease allergy symptoms. But keep in mind that they can only filter out particles that are in the air. In other words, they won’t be able to rid your home of allergens that are inside your bedding, upholstery or have settled on surfaces.”

Vergnaud suggests choosing an air filter with a HEPA or carbon filter, avoiding air ionizers or ozone-generating air purifiers, which can make allergies worse. “The AFAA’s Asthma & Allergy Friendly Certification Program can help you find an air purifier that’s a good fit for people with asthma and allergies”, she says.

Overall, then, an air purifier is likely to help with allergy symptoms more efficiently than a humidifier. Symptoms should be reduced as a result of allergens being removed from the air. Improving air quality can also be effective for easing the symptoms of colds, flu, blocked sinuses and even asthma. There are even a few air purifiers that can remove airborne particles containing viruses. Like humidifiers, air purifiers can help to ease the symptoms of eczema and other skin conditions, too.

Are there any drawbacks to air purifiers?

“Air purifiers can be expensive,” explains Sophie Vergnaud. “You may need several; one for your bedroom and one for the other rooms you spend time in. And air filters need to be used consistently every day to rid the air of small particles.”

As well as being costly, air purifiers need to be checked, cleaned and the filters and UV bulbs (if there is one) require regular replacement; otherwise you could run the risk of mold and bacteria building up on the filter. Note, too, that you can’t use air purifiers with the window open, since this will mean air constantly flowing in and out of the house, without the opportunity for the air purifier cleaning it.

The bottom line

“Don’t expect a drastic improvement from the addition to your home of either a humidifier or an air purifier”, says Sophie Vergnaud. “Neither will work on their own to provide total allergy symptom relief. You’ll need to use them alongside other tactics such as keeping your home well ventilated, minimizing indoor allergens where possible, using a vacuum cleaner with a HEPA filter and treating your symptoms with medication (if needed).”

However, if you’re going to purchase only one appliance, we’d recommend that it’s an air purifier, purely because it will go some way towards reducing allergy symptoms, coughs and congestion, rather than simply soothing the symptoms.

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