Dry air can irritate the nose, throat, skin and lips. No wonder then that in the hottest summer months in the Indian plains and the coldest months in our mountains, dryness causes problems like cracked skin, chapped lips, throat irritation and sinus issues.

A humidifier is a simple machine that produces steam or a mist to increase humidity, to a more comfortable level in these conditions.

It is especially recommended as a home remedy for conditions like dry cough, nosebleeds, chapped lips, common cold, dry hair, eczema, migraine (add a few drops of peppermint essential oil to the water in your humidifier for this), dry eyes, chest congestion, sinusitis, bronchitis and sleep apnea. (Read more: Home remedies for the common cold)

Doctors also recommend the use of a humidifier after some surgical procedures like a tracheotomy (to insert a breathing tube into the throat).

When used correctly, humidifiers are gentle enough to be used as a home remedy for congestion, cradle cap (crusty scalp) and common cold in babies, without the side-effects of medicines.

Humidifiers and dehumidifiers have been suggested as an aid in the treatment of COVID-19 by some scientists who feel that humidity between 40% and 60% may be ideal to help the body get rid of viruses, but much more research needs to be done to verify this claim. To be sure, several COVID-19 symptoms mimic those seen in the flusore throat, dry cough and a runny nose. A humidifier could help to ease some of these.

The cost of a portable humidifier can vary from Rs300 from the small, personal use mist makers to just under Rs 1 lakh.

There are many types of humidifiers and each type has its pros and cons. However, let us first look at whether getting a humidifier is a good idea.

  1. How to use a humidifier correctly
  2. Health benefits of a humidifier
  3. Possible health risks of humidifiers
  4. Cleaning and maintaining your humidifier
  5. Types of humidifier

In a country like India where humidity levels tend to be high, buying a humidifier may seem counterintuitive. Yet, keep in mind that a humidifier is a therapeutic device that can add moisture to dry air and help alleviate certain symptoms and discomforts. The caveat is that it needs to be used correctly. Here are some things to keep in mind:

  • Choose the right humidifier for your household: An important consideration while getting a humidifier should be the composition of your household—if you have young children in the house, you might want to avoid buying a steam humidifier. As the name suggests, the device uses electricity to make steam from the water to increase humidity. The hot water in the stand can be a burn hazard for your child, so it is not recommended.
  • Monitor the humidity levels: Air that is too dry has its health risks but so does air that is too moist. Consistently high levels of humidity encourage the growth of various microorganisms, including allergens like mould and dust mites. These can lead to respiratory infections, and can be especially bad for those with asthma. Therefore, if you or your child has asthma, speak with your doctor about the appropriate setting before using a humidifier.
    Humidity levels in the range of 30%-50% are considered best for your health since these conditions are not conducive to microbe growth. To measure humidity levels in your house, you can purchase a hygrometer—it is a simple, easy-to-read device that will give you accurate readings. The best-case scenario would be a humidifier that tells you what the humidity levels are and lets you set limits.
  • Clean the humidifier regularly: Harmful microbes can grow inside the humidifier unless you clean it regularly—clean it and cover it even when you are not using it for a few weeks. If parts of the humidifier are not cleaned often, the microbes that grow inside can get aerosolized. Once they get into the air we breathe, a humidifier will have done more harm than good.

Overall then, a humidifier can be soothing and may help you get over a sore throat, dry cough and a sinus-induced headache faster—provided you use it correctly and make sure to clean it regularly.

As mentioned above, there are many benefits of using a humidifier. It can bring some relief to dry eyes, nose, lips and skin. It can also help alleviate the symptoms of a sinus infection and prevent bleeding from the lips in case they get too dry.

It is a tried and tested home remedy for conditions like:

  • Dry cough
  • Nosebleeds
  • Chapped lips
  • Common cold
  • Dry hair
  • Migraine
  • Dry eyes
  • Chest congestion
  • Sinusitis
  • Bronchitis
  • Sleep apnea
  • Recovery from tracheotomy
  • Congestion in babies
  • Cradle cap (crusty scalp) in newborns
  • Common cold in babies

(Read more: Home remedies for dry eyes)

Further, there are also benefits for those who have trouble breathing and those with asthma, as the extra moisture can cleanse mucosal membranes.

In cold and dry weather, a humidifier can also give much-needed moisture to the hair and skin. However, it is important to use the humidifier properly, and keep it at an appropriate distance (at least three feet away) if you plan to leave it on while you sleep.

As mentioned above, air that is too damp can lead to mould and the growth of harmful bacteria that can cause lung diseases if inhaled. In fact, there is a disease called "humidifier fever" that is caused by bacteria incubated in dirty humidifiers. 

(Read more: Bacterial infections)

Humidifiers can also release harmful powders composed of calcium and magnesium—this happens if you use hard water in the humidifier. This is why it is recommended that you use distilled water in the humidifier since it does not contain these contaminants. If you notice fine, white dust around your humidifier, it indicates that you need to clean the components. 

These health risks diminish if you maintain your humidifier, though, so it is not necessarily an issue with the device itself—often the problems are caused by operator error.

It is important to learn how to properly clean the humidifier to mitigate the health risks.

Keeping your humidifier clean is crucial. A clean humidifier will allow give you the most health benefits. Here are some tips to keep your humidifier clean. Note that every device is different and will come with a manual—be sure to follow the instructions there. The following are generally good practice: 

  • Use mild soap and warm water to clean the humidifier: Experts recommend using mild soap to clean humidifiers. This is because highly synthetic detergents contain chemicals that can stick inside the machine and be dispersed through the air when you switch it on.
    This is rare but a study has documented some cases of lung diseases in a Korean hospital caused by "humidifier disinfectants"—basically traces of aggressive detergents that can mix with the air when the humidifier is turned on again. 
  • Rinse the container and change the water: It is also important to rinse the components thoroughly after cleaning as this further reduces the chances of harmful germs breeding.
    The US EPA (Environmental Protection Agency) recommends changing the water in the humidifier every three days to reduce the likelihood of microbe proliferation.
  • Use distilled water to fill up the humidifier: If you notice fine, white dust around your humidifier then it is a sign that the water you are adding contains minerals that harden and stick to the container. This mineralization leads to problems and the lining can become aerosolized—sending these minerals into the air. Distilled water has fewer minerals so these issues are significantly reduced. 
  • Change the filter as indicated by the manufacturer: If your humidifier comes with a filter, it will be needed to be changed routinely. Make sure you replace the filter as recommended—it is in your best interest as delays will encourage the growth of harmful microbes.

There are many types of humidifiers. Some may be built into your house’s ventilation system—these are called central humidifiers and can manage the entire home’s humidity levels. This system is, of course, much more costly than smaller, portable humidifiers. These include: 

  • Steam humidifier: This machine heats up water to turn it into steam and cools it just before it leaves the device, thus adding cool moisture to the air. As mentioned above, this is not an attractive option if there are children at home because of the hot water. However, according to the EPA, steam humidifiers are actually safer than some alternatives since it releases fewer microorganisms into the air. This type is also less likely to over-humidify the room since they level off once a certain level has been reached.
  • Ultrasonic humidifier: As the name suggests, this humidifier uses ultrasonic vibrations to send microscopic droplets of water into the air that quickly evaporate and humidify the area. Ultrasonic humidifiers are very quiet, so noise is not an issue if you are sleeping next to one. Because of the way they work, they tend to form little puddles underneath them, but these can be easily mopped up. Unlike humidifiers that rely on evaporation, these do not have a mesh that can filter out harmful particles. For this reason, there is a slightly higher chance of this type of humidifier to form more aerosolized particles that can cause problems. Further, ultrasonics can over-humidify the room so you must keep a tab on humidity levels and not let them get out of hand.
  • Evaporative humidifier: The function here is simple: the air from the room is sucked in by a fan and is passed through a wet mesh that adds moisture content to it and spits it out. Because the device uses the air in the room, its effects will eventually even out. The mesh and components of the device need to be cleaned routinely to prevent the buildup of microbes. This can be a little cumbersome but with newer models in the market, it is quite easy and fast to clean your humidifier.

At the end of the day, all these options are quite safe and will fulfil the basic purpose of adding moisture to the air. Just make sure you use the device appropriately and clean it as suggested by the manufacturer.


  1. EPA [Internet]. United States Environmental Protection Agency; Use and Care of Home Humidifiers
  2. A V Arundel, et al. Indirect health effects of relative humidity in indoor environments. Environ Health Perspect. 1986 Mar; 65: 351–361. PMID: 3709462
  3. Ken Takeda, et al. Effect of aerosol particles generated by ultrasonic humidifiers on the lung in mouse Part Fibre Toxicol. 2013; 10: 64. PMID: 24359587
  4. Mina Ha, et al. Evaluation report on the causal association between humidifier disinfectants and lung injury Epidemiol Health. 2016; 38: e2016037. PMID: 27733036
  5. Kangmo Ahn, et al. Use of Humidifiers with Children Suffering from Atopic Dermatitis Environ Health Toxicol. 2012; 27: e2012004. PMID: 22347706
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