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Are You Breeding Bacteria? The Consequences of not Cleaning Humidifiers!

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It is that time of year when many of us will be breaking out the humidifier to deal with winter dryness. Humidifiers are beneficial to any household for the following reasons:

  • Keeps relative humidity levels from getting too low
  • Helps with colds and other illnesses like allergies and asthma
  • Prevents static electricity
  • Moisturizes skin
  • Keeps plants and furnishings in good condition
  • Reduces snoring
  • Creates warmth during colder months

Low humidity levels can cause static electricity, dry, itchy skin, irritated eyes, a dry, hacking cough, dry nasal passages, or chapped lips. Humidity that's too high can make your home feel stuffy. You might see condensation on the walls, floors, and other surfaces, triggering the growth of harmful bacteria, dust mites, and mold.

Ideally, the humidity level in a home should be about 30-50%. In the winter this number can sometimes drop to 10%. What causes humidity levels to drop? Perhaps you live in a naturally dry area. Places in the southwest are arid in nature and can be very dry in the colder months. Moreover, keeping indoor areas warm can trigger indoor dryness, too. Heating systems - whether portable or central - have a tendency to zap moisture.

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If you're experiencing symptoms of dryness, then you definitely should get the humidifier ready. Humidifiers will keep your indoor area comfortable during dry winter months. To better assess your situation, invest in a hygrometer and test your humidity levels.

Once you've decided you need a humidifier, there are care instructions you need to follow. Although humidifiers are beneficial, a dirty humidifier can cause health problems.

A dirty reservoir and filter can breed bacteria and mold. This can be especially problematic for people with asthma and allergies. Even in healthy people, a dirty humidifier has the potential to trigger flu-like symptoms or lung infections when contaminated mist or steam is released into the air. So not only do you need the humidifier to eliminate problems associated with dryness, but it's vital you keep it clean!

Tips for Keeping Your Humidifier Clean

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There are two kinds of humidifiers: ultrasonic and impeller. Ultrasonic humidifiers create a cool mist by means of ultrasonic vibration. Impeller humidifiers, often called cool mist humidifiers, produce cool mist by means of a high-speed rotating disk.

Because most models are equipped with a tank that holds standing water, both types of humidifiers allow for the growth of microorganisms. Below are some basic cleaning guidelines. Following a few simple steps can prevent any possible illness caused by humidifying your home.

1. Always unplug the unit before cleaning, changing, or adding water.

2. When using your humidifier, start with distilled or demineralized water. Tap water contains minerals that create deposits and encourage bacterial growth. Furthermore, minerals that are inadvertently dispersed into the air land on furniture like white dust and enter your lungs. Distilled or demineralized water has a much lower mineral content than tap water so the result is better. Some units like the Luma Comfort models include a demineralization cartridge that actually filters minerals from the water.

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3. Change the humidifier water on a daily basis. Don't allow film or deposits to build up inside the unit. Always empty the tank and dry the surfaces thoroughly. After, refill the unit with clean water.

4. Thoroughly clean your humidifier every three days. You can use distilled white vinegar to do this; however, to disinfect the unit, you should clean the tank and other parts of the humidifier with 3% hydrogen peroxide solution. If extra disinfection is required, let the cleaning solution stand for 30 minutes.

If you can't find 3% hydrogen peroxide, you can use household bleach instead. Mix one teaspoon of bleach to one gallon of water and clean all the parts thoroughly. Be sure to rinse all parts well before putting the unit back together to prevent the cleaning solution from dispensing into the air.

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5. Change filters regularly. Follow manufacturer recommendations for care and check the filters often to see if they are dirty.

6. If you notice the area around the humidifier is getting wet or condensation is developing, turn the humidifier down or use it less frequently. Your indoor area is probably above recommended humidity levels.

7. When storing the unit during the off-season, be sure to drain it and clean it thoroughly. Clean it again when you take it out of storage to use it. Be sure to change all filters, too. Throw away all used cartridges, filters, and cassettes.

8. Replace humidifiers that are getting too old. Overtime, deposits can build up that are difficult to remove. There is no health benefit to using a dirty humidifier.

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If you, your child, or anyone else in your family has asthma or allergies, talk to your doctor before using a humidifier. Increased humidity may ease breathing in children and adults who have asthma or allergies, especially during a respiratory infection such as a cold; however, dirty mist or increased growth of allergens caused by high humidity can trigger or worsen asthma and allergy symptoms. Common concerns include:

Humidifier fever: This is a disease of uncertain origin, but it shares symptoms with hypersensitivity pneumonitis, a lung condition that develops from breathing in bacterial toxins. It produces flu-like symptoms marked by high fever, headache, and chills.

Mesophilic fungi, thermophilic bacteria, and thermophylic actinomycetes: These microorganisms are known to colonize home humidifiers. One study performed by the Department of Internal Medicine at the University of Michigan reports that from 44 of 17 humidifiers were found to be contaminated. In fact, some humidifiers tested were implicated in cases of hypersensitivity pneumonitis.

To avoid these and other potentially dangerous complications, don't forget to clean your humidifier on a regular basis.

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