Water makes up about 70% of the average adult’s total body weight. Water is critical for sustaining life because it helps keep a number of functions in the human body going, ranging from manufacturing hormones and forming saliva to helping rid the body of waste products.
When we think about water in terms of health, we usually think about drinking and hydration. But depending on where you live and the time of year, considering the amount of water in the air — humidity — may be important to maintaining overall good health too.
If you live at altitude or in an arid environment, the humidity in the air may be lower than what people who live at sea level or on the coast may experience. And in the wintertime, indoor heating systems and cold outdoor temperatures can really wring all the moisture out of the air.
The National Weather Service reports that warm air can hold more moisture or water vapor than cold air. As temperatures fall, the air loses its ability to retain that moisture, making for dry, cold air that can cause problems for your health.
Breathing in air that’s very dry can dehydrate the moist mucus membranes that line the respiratory tract including the nose, throat and lungs. For some, this leads to minor irritations or nuisance symptoms, such as dry, itchy skin. But for others, dry conditions can have more serious repercussions, especially if there’s an underlying medical condition present.
Dry air can trigger symptoms or exacerbate several conditions including:
Wheezing, coughing and shortness of breath are all symptoms that may increase in the dry winter months and are also associated with these respiratory conditions.
[Read: What Is a Dry Cough?]
Adding Moisture to the Air
If you tend to get colds frequently or experience frequent congestion during the winter months, using a humidifier might help alleviate some of those problems.
“Humidifiers are devices that add moisture or steam into the air,” says Adam Thompson, a respiratory therapist with Santa Clara Valley Medical Center in San Jose, California. Some homes have a central humidifying system connected to the heating system, but you may need to purchase a stand-alone device. Many health care providers recommend running a humidifier in the bedroom at night to help keep the air more comfortable as you sleep.
Adding moisture to the air can help alleviate certain symptoms of respiratory illness including:
— Congestion in the nose or chest. “The increased moisture in the air can help relieve a congested nose or chest by adding water to mucus, making it easier to cough up,” Thompson explains.
— Sore throat. “The moisture in the air may help ease pain from a sore throat,” Thomson says. This is because the humid air lubricates the throat and makes it easier to swallow.
— Dry cough. Breathing in dry air can cause or worsen a cough as your bronchi — the tubes that bring air into the lungs — dry out and spasm from the lack of moisture. Adding humidity to the air can reduce this reaction. “People who are experiencing common cold symptoms may benefit from the use of a humidifier,” Thompson says.
— Chronic runny nose. If your nose is always running in the winter, that might be because of dry air. Disruptions in the fluid balance in the nasal passages can trigger irritation and an inflammatory response, leading to a constantly runny nose.
— Viral infections. There’s some evidence that using a humidifier can also reduce the chances of acquiring certain respiratory viruses. It’s not fully understood how exactly humidity alters the transmissibility of certain viral infections, such as the flu and common colds. But it appears that many virus particles are sensitive to humidity and are rendered less infectious when the humidity rises.
Beyond improving respiratory symptoms that you might be experiencing, humidifying the air can also help you soothe:
— Dry skin, hair and nails.
— Dry eyes.
— Cracked or chapped lips.
If you have frequent colds in the wintertime, a humidifier might help. Especially for children, running a humidifier in the bedroom at night can help clear congestion and make for a better night’s sleep. The Environmental Protection Agency recommends keeping the humidity level in your home between 30% and 50%.
The Dangers of Using a Humidifier
While humidifiers can be a big help for some people, especially those who live in very dry climates, there can be some downsides.
“Humidifiers and filters that are dirty can quickly breed mold and bacteria, which can then be spread throughout your house on the water droplets generated by the humidifier,” Thompson says. Therefore, “it’s important to make sure your humidifier and filter are clean.” Change the water in your humidifier as directed by the manufacturer and be sure the change the filter at least as often as the instructions recommend.
Changing the water frequently and cleaning the device according to the manufacturer’s recommendations is critical to keeping the humidifier working well and preventing problems.
Thompson adds that using distilled water in your humidifier instead of tap water can also help keep it cleaner and reduce the chances of anything harmful growing in the reservoir.
A humidifier can soothe a lot of symptoms related to dry air, but Thompson notes that you should continue paying attention to your symptoms and seek medical advice if they worsen or don’t resolve within a few days. There could be something more serious at work than just some dry air if they don’t abate after a few nights of running a humidifier in the bedroom.
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