Humidifiers Don't Do Lick Of Good Helping Colds

When kids get a bad cold, parents often run humidifiers or vaporizers in their rooms in an attempt to ease their congestion. But — sadly — this practice may give comfort but is not actually effective.

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Parents take note: Pediatricians often recommend using a humidifier to treat coughs and colds. But as NPR's Nancy Shute reports, it might not be doing as much good as you think.

NANCY SHUTE: Kids get a lot of colds in the winter, and mine is no exception. When my child is sick, getting out the humidifier is the least I can do.

(Soundbite of humidifier)

SHUTE: And I'm not the only one. Some doctors run the humidifier when their kids are sick. And Stephen Teach is one of them. He's an asthma expert at Children's National Medical Center.

Dr. STEPHEN TEACH (Associate Chief, Emergency Medicine and Trauma Center, Children's National Medical Center): Colds are incredibly common. We can expect the average child to get between six and eight colds from September through the spring, and the options that moms and dads and pediatricians have to treat these colds are relatively few. And as a parent myself, I can tell you that we did these all the time when our children were young.

SHUTE: But an article in this week's Pediatrics says humidifiers don't do kids a lick of good. Teach, actually, agrees.

Dr. TEACH: There's no evidence that use of a humidifier decreases a child's symptoms when they have a cold.

SHUTE: So we're all using humidifiers even though they don't help? Sounds like we need to take a closer look at the humidifier question.

Erwin Gelfand is head of pediatrics at National Jewish Health in Denver.

Dr. ERWIN GELFAND (Chairman, Department of Pediatrics, National Jewish Health): There's a lot of old wives' tales about humidified air and how beneficial it is, because I think everybody thinks that if you have humidified air, it's easier to breathe.

SHUTE: Instead, Gelfand says there are lots of reasons to not use a humidifier. Those old-fashioned steam vaporizers can be dangerous.

Dr. GELFAND: A big risk, but the hot ones are burns. And, you know, for kids, many kids got burned with the old hot steam humidifiers.

SHUTE: The newer ultrasonic humidifiers can spread germs, mold and toxic metals.

Dr. GELFAND: So you can imagine in a humidifier that those bacteria, those molds may be growing as well, and what you're doing is you're dispersing them into the air.

SHUTE: Humidifiers come with lots of instructions for cleaning them with bleach and vinegar and using distilled water. That's supposed to make them safer, but we probably aren't doing a very good job.

Dr. GELFAND: Most people don't get at where the water is dispersed. So even though you think you're cleaning it, you're probably not eliminating a lot of the stuff that's growing there.

SHUTE: And for some people, having more humidity in the home can hurt.

Stephen Teach says that's especially true for the millions of kids with allergies and asthma.

Dr. TEACH: What we do know is that humidification of the home environment will encourage mold growth. And, of course, mold is a very common trigger for children with asthma.

SHUTE: Despite all that bad news, doctors know that when the kids get sick, we parents are still going to turn on the humidifier. But they like us to know that everybody in the family already has a great humidifier, and it's as close as the nose on your face.

Dr. GELFAND: We humidify the air we breathe, right? That's why we go through the nose. We have the hairs in the nose filter out, you know, large particles, and we do humidify the air before it goes down into the lung.

SHUTE: Hmm. I'm glad to know that my nose is up to the job.

(Soundbite of humidifier)

SHUTE: Well, humidifier, I just might be ready to pull the plug.

Nancy Shute, NPR News.

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